Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon (B) is quietly revolutionary as a first mainstream teen coming of age movie featuring a gay protagonist, but the struggle with identity extends beyond its titular character to a somewhat milquetoast story and screenplay topped with a dollop of vanilla tone. The film is largely fun and occasionally quite moving, and its buoyant charm lies primarily on the shoulders of Nick Robinson, extremely likable and in almost every frame of the film as Simon. There’s a bit of mystery about the email pen pal at the center of the plot, but mostly the story centers on Simon and his group of friends coming to grips with teen romantic entanglements. Some characters are drawn too large and others underdeveloped in a movie that wants to be John Hughes-ian but rarely yields to its inner mania. It’s all a glorious first step for Hollywood movies but could have been made more memorable in the hands of a more creative filmmaker. Much like Philadelphia received some flack for sugarcoating its story in the first mainstream trailblazer to address the AIDS crisis, Berlanti’s film stays mostly in a safe lane to showcase coming out in the modern age. Expect the film to spark some changes of heart even as it clings to a pretty by the book formula.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.
A love that dare not speak its name gets its most magnificent due in an uncommonly affecting and breathtaking new film. Director Luca Guadagnino’s idyllic, romantic coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name (A) transports viewers to 1983 Northern Italy and, despite its foreign film aesthetic and slow burn pacing, presents a truly accessible story of summer love and its lifelong consequences. The character peculiarities and specificity of the time and place breathe a special life force into the proceedings. The likability, charm, intelligence and wit of the movie’s protagonists, the preternaturally talented Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who has never been better, anchor and uplift the film. And Michael Stuhlbarg gives a final act speech that sums up the movie’s themes of personal acceptance with astonishing flourish. James Ivory deftly adapted this André Aciman novel about a fleeting love that burns bright, and Sufjan Stevens provides much of the film’s memorable music. Guadagnino blends joy and pathos into a true wanderlust of emotions in a film of picturesque physical and emotional splendor. It’s one of the great films of this or any year.
The search for elusive love is literally operatic in Tom Gustafson’s sexy, dreamlike musical adaptation Hello Again (B+), a film that traces ten romantic vignettes across the ten decades of the twentieth century. A percussive longing possesses all the movie’s melodic segments, as does a poetic score by Michael John LaChiusa. The twin language of the film is singing and sexuality, and it is filmed in a kaleidoscope of bold colors and lovely period pastiche. The sprawling cast is uniformly brave and brazen, with standouts including Rumer Willis as a smoldering mistress who christens bathtubs and movie palaces with her prowess and T.R. Knight as a seducer extraordinaire aboard the Titanic who won’t let an iceberg stand in the way of his happy ending. Cheyenne Jackson and Audra McDonald enchant in an extended duet of the flesh as a music exec and his muse, Jenna Ushkowitz delights in a sassy naughty nurse number and Martha Plimpton holds her own amidst the array of trained vocalists in a puzzling futuristic bookend to the interlocking stories. The film is austere and may frustrate some as it riffs down rabbit holes through time periods and twisty themes to wrestle with physical love, betrayal and obsession in all of its many splendid forms. It’s an unconventional curiosity box of sights and sounds worth discovering.
Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louie (B) is ostensibly a “May-September romance” between Alan Cumming as an artist and Zachary Booth as his muse. Through the lens of an engrossing inter-generational relationship, the film spotlights attitudes about the AIDS crisis reflected through those tethered to the heights of its tragedy and those buoyed by a renewed and sometimes more casual outlook on dealing with the disease. The film centers on Cumming’s character getting out of his own head as he clings desperately to the crusades he once championed. His young companion challenges many of his mores and expectations. Both men in the center of the film give sage performances. Don’t let Booth’s matinee idol looks eclipse what a well modulated performance he offers. Some subplots are better developed than others, with a sequence involving some creative painting as a highlight. Character driven with moments of poignancy, it’s a thinking person’s film with some imaginative flourishes.
Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (B-) is a dreamlike Brooklyn-set character study about an aimless young man who struggles with his sexuality as he tries to be macho for his seaside buddies and girlfriend while leading a furtive double life of Internet hook-ups and drug-crazed dalliances. Breakthrough actor Harris Dickinson is mesmerizing in the central role, and his character’s heartache is palpable as he makes a series of regrettable choices. The film offers frustratingly few tidy endings to the protagonist’s plight while posing an absorbing series of moral hurdles. The film is a sometimes graphic but also intimately picturesque love child of Moonlight, Shame and Crimes of Passion with a plot point or two and hyper-masculine pack mentality that recalls A Clockwork Orange; but like its central character, it sometimes gets stunted on its jarring journey. The film is nonetheless a sleeper discovery and will reward those looking for an arty alternative from recent multiplex fare.
Written and directed with poignancy and grace, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (A) is urgent in telling a three-chapter coming of age story of a young African-American man named Chiron and how his experiences growing up in America (largely in a surreal pastel drenched Miami) shape his identity. Rather than tackle only the physical violence associated with most inner-city dramas, the perceptive Jenkins traverses the emotional landscapes of self-worth, racial identity and sexuality and how Chiron learns to find traces of comfort in his own skin. The writer/director has fashioned a very dynamic narrative around a shy and withdrawn protagonist; as embodied by three supremely talented actors – Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen) and Trevante Rhodes (young man), viewers will ache for him to come to answers. Naomie Harris is devastating as Chiron’s emotionally abusive addict mother, and Mahershala Ali is magnificent as a drug dealer who takes on a role as a near-spiritual guide. The film explores the games people play with each other and with themselves in their quest for acceptance. The clues aren’t easy to discover as the film employs an overall tone of heartache punctuated with bursts of uplift, but the journey is consistently gripping. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is splendid and assured cinema with an austere and stunning score by Nicholas Britell and a dreamlike color palette created by cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel (first chapter emulates Fuji film stock to emphasize skin tones followed by Afga film stock adding cyan and the final chapter in Kodak form). This is a must-see for cinephiles and is moving indeed as it pinpoints exactly why this Black life matters, expanding consciousness and empathy, and how the people who come into our lives shape our evolving selves.
Justin Kelly’s King Cobra (D+) is a mystery thriller with little mystery or thrills. Set in 2006 as YouTube was coming of age, the film purports to bring a Boogie Nights type allure to the goings-on behind the firewall of an adult film industry in transition. Newcomer Garrett Clayton plays a fresh faced Californian who gets swept up into the porn industry by a closeted amateur producer who makes movies out of his innocuous suburban home, played by Christian Slater. Meanwhile, James Franco and Keegan Allen play rival provocateurs who seem to be acting in a completely different movie universe, like Magenta and Columbia with a death wish. Kelly clearly believes his work is sexier and edgier than it turns out to be. Aside from Slater’s occasionally unhinged performance, there’s very little worth watching here. Fans of Clayton, who is featured in NBC’s Hairspray Live, will get the eye candy they seek but little substance.
Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon might not be anyone’s first casting choices as a gay comedy writer and his dying mom, respectively; but boy are they a moving and marvelous duo in Chris Kelly’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking melodrama Other People (B+). Plemons, masterfully playing a sad sack hybrid of Matt Damon and Philip Seymour Hoffman, anchors the film as a young man having a very bad year, unlucky in love and work and summoned home from NYC to Sacramento to care for his ailing mom. Molly Shannon is a force of nature as an idiosyncratic and intuitive mother fighting an aggressive bout with cancer. The film’s structure is basically a year in the life, but it colors outside the lines in splendid and droll ways. Like Terms of Endearment and other classic tearjerkers, the ache is earned. Folks will appreciate Bradley Whitford as the stoic father and June Squibb and Paul Dooley as eccentric grandparents. A smart script and surprising characters make this an offbeat indie worth watching.
Note: This movie opened Sundance Film Festival and closed Out on Film. Look for it to cascade into awards season as a dark horse candidate. It’s very much in the Little Miss Sunshine genre.
Scott Sheppard’s documentary An Act of Love (B) is the powerful account of United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer who challenged convention by officiating his son’s same-sex marriage ceremony despite church doctrine. Sheppard delves deep into the heart of an American family and far into the bureaucracy – where strictures further complicate scriptures – that hinders societal advancement in an otherwise progressive institution. It’s a sensitive and sensible look at the clash between family and faith. Schaefer makes a compelling central subject in a story that continues to unfold in trials and conversations beyond the screen.
Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye (B) advances one of my favorite genres of film: the talky, plaintiff romance. This two-decades later Before Sunrise effect seems to be casting its spell into every corridor, from the early days of Barack and Michelle (the recommended Southside with You) to gay-themed stories of young love (Theo & Hugo). In Kirkman’s life-affirming entry in this genre, the story centers on two men whose romantic relationship ended 15 years ago but who are reunited to possibly rekindle their love affair anew. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe is the central figure, a bespectacled graphic artist in L.A. who has let many of his passions sputter; and Aaron Costa Ganis plays the dashing dreamer (the one who got away) re-entering the picture. Through both a modern story and flashbacks from 15 years before, rendered flawlessly, the audience follows the trajectory of a couple with great potential. There’s a very natural flow to the relationship and clear tension about what it could become. Although clearly committed to the role, Near-Verbugghe simply isn’t as strong a screen presence as Ganis, causing at times a lopsided narrative. In fact, Ganis is so charming in the role, most co-stars wouldn’t stand a chance. The characters aren’t quite as indelible as hoped, but Kirkman does a wonderful job creating a contemplative “what if” through line of theming. Additionally, the film transports viewers to an ethereal time and place in the West Coast desert, summoning a spiritual and cerebral atmosphere for asking the big questions about the choices we make.
Note: This film was screened at the Out on Film festival in Atlanta and is playing at additional festivals around the U.S. It premiered in NYC and Los Angeles mid-November and is now available for streaming and on-demand.
Jacques Martindeau and Oliver Ducaste’s French language film Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo (B-) can’t quite sustain the energy of its kaleidoscopic first act as it depicts an unexpected chronicle of young love with unfathomable origins. The central gay couple meets in a sex club in a series of sequences that might make the Marquis de Sade blush. It’s like Ken Russell, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee’s styles fused in a bathhouse burlesque. What follows is a sentimental love story à la Before Sunrise as the young men wander the streets and canals of Paris. The story is sweet, but some of the dialogue is forced. The magic of the storybook romance is not altogether convincing, and some of the plot points about unsafe sex feel vaguely like a cinema length public service announcement. Geoffrey Couët is passable as the naïve first-timer in the nightclub but not altogether comfortable in his character. François Nambot is the more capable actor who is clearly working harder to make the romantic connection palpable. The real-time nature of the story slows it down to a crawl while chance encounters with denizens of the city don’t really enhance the narrative. The film works best when the young lovers are sprinting through the Parisian streets, blissful about the “morning after” and what dreams the future may hold.
Note: This film was screened at the Out on Film festival in Atlanta and is playing at additional festivals around the U.S.