The 26th Philadelphia Film Festival unspools at area venues later this month.
Featuring more than 100 features, shorts and documentaries, the festival has something for everyone. For LGBTQ viewers, there are several films to get excited about in this year’s program.
“Alaska Is a Drag” is writer/director Shaz Bennett’s feature-length film, based on her award-winning 2012 short. Leo (Philly native Martin L. Washington, Jr.) is a young, gay African-American guy who works at a fish cannery. At work, Kyle (Christopher O’Shea) bullies Leo, but Leo fights back. Leo is also unexpectedly protected by Declan (out actor Matt Dallas), a handsome new arrival in town. Leo’s home life is also complicated: His twin sister Tristen (Maya Washington) is receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Disease; his mother left for L.A. years ago; and his father is a religious fanatic. Leo’s only “escape” from his harsh reality is performing in drag.
Bennett’s chaste romantic drama is mostly fabulous, even though it is often contrived. Leo shows an affinity for boxing and must compete in the ring on the same day he is performing in a drag contest at Jan’s (Margaret Cho) gay bar. This plotting, of course, forces Leo and Declan to be constantly together, creating an “Is he or isn’t he gay?” romantic tension around Declan. Scenes of the guys sharing a misplaced — or perhaps intended? — kiss generate some of the drama. Unfortunately, Bennett shoehorns too many storylines into her brief running time. Nevertheless, Washington is ingratiating as Leo, and Dallas is pretty dreamy as his potential love interest.
“Alaska Is a Drag” is preceded by writer-director Jordan Firstman’s awkward short, “Call Your Father,” about a date between 40-something Greg (Craig Chester) and the decades-younger Josh (Firstman). Viewers may have trouble enduring this comic date for the film’s 20-minute running time as Greg puts up with Josh’s manic antics for reasons that strain credulity. This short is especially disappointing because it gives New Queer Cinema indie darling Chester a thankless role.
“BPM” is co-writer/director Robin Campillo’s immersive film about ACT UP in France in 1989. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is negative, has just started attending meetings. He — along with viewers — gets caught up in the “actions,” such as disrupting a pharmaceutical company and demanding test results for AIDS drugs. Nathan also soon finds himself attracted to Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV-positive, and they begin a passionate relationship. Campillo’s remarkable film emphasizes how the personal is political.
The tender American-indie film “Princess Cyd,” by openly gay writer/director Stephen Cone, has Cyd (Jessie Pinnock), a young woman, unexpectedly connecting with the gender-nonconforming Katie (Malic White) during an extended stay at her aunt Miranda’s (Rebecca Spencer). The film, a gentle, slow-burn romance, takes its time as Cyd develops a fascination with Katie that includes Cyd dressing up in a tux for a get-together Miranda throws, or dancing with Katie on a balcony for a filmmaker who thinks they are a couple. This unassuming film benefits from such small, quietly powerful moments. It is precisely scenes such as a discussion Miranda and Cyd have in a kitchen that make “Princess Cyd” so special.
The Philadelphia Film Festival also gives queer viewers their first chance to see gay filmmaker Todd Haynes’ latest effort, “Wonderstruck,” adapted by out author Brian Selznick from his young-adult novel of the same name. The film chronicles two stories: one set in the 1920s that concerns Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl in New Jersey; and the other, set in the 1970s, which features Ben (Oakes Fegley), who suffers hearing loss. Both young adults travel to New York City in search of someone. For Rose, it is Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a silent-film actress; for Ben, who recently lost his mother, it is Danny, his father, whom he never met. How their stories dovetail form the magic of “Wonderstruck,” which audiences should discover for themselves. What can be revealed is that the film is beautifully lensed by ace cinematographer Ed Lachman.
Not to be missed is gay director/cowriter John Trengove’s remarkable feature debut, “The Wound.” Xolani (openly gay musician Nakhane Touré) heads out to the mountains in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, where he will be a caregiver for Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), a “soft” (read: queer) initiate in a manhood ritual involving circumcision. Xolani is in love with Vija (Bongile Mantsai), another caregiver, who identifies as straight. However, these men meet discreetly and frequently for sex. When the observant Kwanda figures out their secret relationship, it creates a love triangle of sorts. “The Wound” builds to a powerful climax as Xolani must make some difficult decisions and grapple with what it means to be a (gay) man in his Xhosa culture. Touré gives a magnificent performance, conveying Xolani’s fear and desire through his incredible expressions and body language.
“The Wound” screening also includes the Indian short “Goddess,” about a closeted lesbian, but this film was not available for preview.
“Thelma,” Norway’s Oscar entry, is a hypnotic drama by filmmaker Joachim Trier. Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist household, Thelma (Eili Harboe) is lonely and sheltered when she enters university. After she has a seizure in a study hall, Thelma is unnerved. When she meets and falls for Anja (Kaya Wilkins), Thelma struggles with her same-sex desires; she even tries to pray the gay away. But it is soon revealed, Thelma has telekinetic powers that need to be kept under control. Trier makes expected connections between religion and suppressed desires, which will no doubt prompt comparisons to “Carrie.” But “Thelma” has a cooler tone. A sequence where Anja holds Thelma’s hand at the ballet is as quietly intense as a scene in which Thelma has an erotic experience from smoking weed. Harboe delivers a compelling performance as the film’s troubled heroine, and she generates both mystery and sympathy in equal measures. Trier’s film is also gorgeously lensed with water, glass and ice imagery being especially striking.
Another film that should be of interest to queer viewers is the enchanting romance “Souvenir.” This is the second feature by Belgian filmmaker Bavo Defurne, who made the gay coming-of-age film “North Sea Texas,” and several gay-themed shorts. Liliane (Isabelle Huppert) is a failed European Song Contest singer — she lost to ABBA — now working in a pâté factory. When Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a 22-year-old boxer and coworker, recognizes her, they strike up a tentative friendship. It soon blossoms into a May/December romance. Their relationship, however, has its ups and downs as Jean asks a reluctant Liliane to sing again. He later wants to manage her comeback, which introduces some complications. A throwback to the films of Douglas Sirk, which inspired Defurne, “Souvenir” shows how the lonely Liliane develops a new sense of self. Defurne’s film is highly stylized with vibrant colors and modern interiors. The incomparable Huppert gets to sing a few songs and model some fabulous dresses, but it is her sly, expressive performance that really dazzles. In support, the hunky, lovesick Azaïs is charming.
Lastly, this year the Philadelphia Film Festival is paying tribute to the late, great Jonathan Demme, with a retrospective that includes screenings of his locally made films. Of course, this gives viewers another chance to see “Philadelphia” on the big screen. Tom Hanks gives an Oscar-winning performance as a lawyer seeking justice for being fired because he has HIV.
For tickets, showtimes and venues, visit http://filmadelphia.org/festival/. See you at the movies!