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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Black trans sex workers speak their truth...

Screen Grabs: Black trans sex workers speak their truth in ‘Kokomo City’

Plus: Queer exuberance in 'The Unabridged Mrs. Vera's Daybook' and romantic fumbling in 'Shortcomings' and 'August'

Terror of LGBTQ content may be a major factor in the current extremist crackdown on that societal scourge, libraries—surely you read last week that Houston is replacing 28 such school facilities and their filthy books with student detention centers, because ‘Murrica!—but so far, at least, no one is stopping such content from being created. There’s certainly a lot of it onscreen these days, from the inclusivity of big-budget mainstream endeavors like Barbie to the ongoing production of independent projects that have always been at the forefront of progressive, non-stereotypical representation. Several of the latter just arrived in our in-box, as it happens.

Kokomo City
A multiple award winner at Sundance this year, now bearing prizes from other festivals as well, D. Smith’s documentary is a brief (at 73 minutes) but confident and stylish look at Black trans sex workers. Sometimes almost too stylish: Its presentation is so flashily redolent of music video and advertising imagery that occasionally the film seems less revealing than performative. Still, that’s apt to a degree for subjects so glamorously put-together, while simultaneously frank in ways that can be jaw-dropping (re: clients: “They wanna see a pretty-ass girl with a big dick”).

The four primary interviewees here—two in NYC, two in Georgia—are also very articulate about their anger, passing, their sense of self, complexities of race, class and identity, and how they relate to (or are rejected by) cis Black men and women. There are harrowing as well as humorous personal experiences told. “This is survival work, this is risky shit,” one says; all of them seem to know colleagues who’ve been killed on the job. (One of the women featured, Koko Da Doll, was herself murdered in April.)

Smith indulges some odd digressions, including too many superfluous scenes with a straight male record industry figure, and I really could have done without the cartoon sound effects (ka-ching!’s whenever money is discussed, etc.). But the sumptuously B&W-shot Kokomo City, which opens Fri/4 at the Roxie and plays Mon/7-Tues/8 at the 4-Star, provides an introduction to vivid personalities that aren’t soon forgotten.

The Unabridged Mrs. Vera’s Daybook
Looking fine is a considerably more whimsical pursuit for David Faulk and Michael Johnstone, artists with overlapping disciplines who met in SF at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and were soon mutually devoted to “providing joy and color at a desperate time.” That primarily (but not exclusively) took the form of “the Verasphere,” in which Faulk’s ever-evolving drag persona Mrs. Vera and anyone else who wants to play dress-up don the outrageously imaginative sculptural costumes he’s designed, and get photographed and/or filmed by Johnstone.

Much of Unabridged covers ground that will be very familiar to anyone of these HIV-positive men’s generation—including their involvement in the Names Project, the ’87 March on Washington, other AIDS-related activism, and more recently coping with the perils of COVID. Alas, much of that may well be news to many viewers under 40. Arguably stretching its material a bit thin to feature length, Robert James’ documentary still provides a classic glimpse of San Francisco gay culture, as well as, yes, a lot of joyful and colorful artwork. Gravitas Ventures is releasing it to global TVOD and Digital platforms on August 1.

Fumbling Twentysomethings: “August,” “Shortcomings” 
One thing that undeniably scares conservatives about today’s youth is how comparatively little they care about defining sexuality, or avoiding association with people of the “wrong” persuasion. That kind of social (and sometimes romantic) fluidity is taken for granted in two enterprising new indie seriocomedies.

Sophia Castuera’s August at Twenty-Two finds fledgling actress Cal (Ali Edwards) bouncing around Manhattan with other recent college grads, trying to get their foot in various doors. She’s got the old-school Gay Best Friend (Jorge Felipe Guevara as Bobby), but inconsiderately starts ignoring his calls once distracted by the resurfacing of old boyfriend Jacob (Clay Singer). Alas, Jake has a new girlfriend—but then Emily (Lilli Kay) turns out to be cool, kinda-bi, and the two women click. As if that weren’t already potential trouble enough, Cal is soon making goo-goo eyes at Jacob’s brother, too.

These immature characters are exasperatingly needy, sulky, and self-absorbed; it’s not always clear if the screenplay (by star Edwards) actually means for them to come off as annoying as they often do. But the well-crafted film does feel like it’s got its finger on the pulse of a particular generational middle-class malaise. It’s already out (also from Gravitas Ventures) on TVOD and Digital platforms.

A not-dissimilar group of post-collegiate friends and acquaintances a few years further down the line drives Shortcomings, actor Randall Park’s directorial debut Shortcomings. Ben (Justin H. Min) is the manager for a Berkeley arthouse cinema, and girlfriend of six years Miko (Ally Maki) works for a local film festival. Yet they seem to be at odds about almost everything—and Ben is such a sarcastic, unsupportive a partner, you wonder why Miko hasn’t bolted even before she announces she’s accepted an internship in NYC.

Japanese-American Ben utilizes this relationship “time off” to indulge his secret jones for white chicks (notably ones played by Debby Ryan and Tavi Gevenson)…. though they get tired of his shit, too. Not helping either is the fact that his BFF Alice (Sherry Cola), a filter-free lesbian Don Juan prone to statements like “Just because I’m a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m wrong,” announces she’s going to NYC. Inevitably, and fatefully, Ben decides to take a trip thataway himself.

Adapted from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, Park’s film sticks close to that model, with a few incisive dialogue additions and a different ending (still ambiguous, but less pessimistic). Ben remains self-defeating, but he’s less of a complete pill than in the book, and the cast really flesh out their hitherto two-dimensional parts. This movie is low-key, smart, funny, and sad in ways that feel organic, not least the manner in which racial identity (most principal figures here are Asian-heritage) is even more of a conversational minefield than the sexual or gender kind. Shortcomings opens in theaters throughout the Bay Area this Fri/4; see also Pam Grady’s interview with the filmmakers in 48 Hills coming later this week.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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