More Reviews From Frameline 43

by on June 25, 2019

From the moment convenience store clerk Chris gives prospective transwoman and central character Tina the stink eye, the viewer fears for her safety.  That anxiety, heightened by the flash forward of the film’s opening moments, keeps a viewer’s attention riveted to Flavio Alves’ powerful South By Southwest award-winning feature “The Garden Left Behind.”

Undocumented Mexican immigrant Tina Carrera (Carlie Guevara) wants to transition yet is hesitant about doing so.  Her hesitation holds up the psychological assessment by Dr. Cleary (Ed Asner) which would allow her transition. Providing added stress is the wobbliness of Tina’s relationship with her boyfriend Jason, who won’t introduce her to his relatives.  Fortunately, Tina has the emotional support of her circle of transwoman friends and the love of abuela Eliana. Tina’s grandmother, though, hasn’t quite understood her granddaughter’s desires and still refers to her as Antonio.

Flores’ film captures the reality that the desire to live one’s truth is far more difficult to implement than expected.  Transwoman Carol and her friends help Tina work through some of the issues she wrestles with. But the impatience and frustration Tina displays as well as the reasons for her hesitation is something they can’t help with.  The expenses required for transitioning don’t ease matters. Tina obviously lacks medical insurance and her taxi driving tips don’t provide a steady income stream. Jason, despite being somewhat well-off, isn’t exactly coming forward to help Tina out financially.  Finally, the viewer senses the enormity of the transition decision makesTina emotionally blink.

Eliana’s continual referring to Tina by her prospective deadname isn’t done out of malice or transphobia.  The grandmother is unhappy her granddaughter doesn’t have a regular job. Nor does she really approve of Tina’s bringing home Jason for a one-night stand.  But ultimately Eliana stands by her family even if Tina’s motives escape her understanding.

Carol’s support for Tina includes putting her in touch with Dr. Cleary and showing her that she’s not alone.  Though Tina confesses to not being the rabble rousing type, the transwoman friend helps give her the confidence to publicly protest police inaction on a recent murder of a transwoman.  Tellingly, Tina’s problems with Jason don’t lead to Carol urging her friend to dump the clearly cowardly boyfriend.

Chris, by comparison, turns out to be a darker version of Jason.  He’s sexually attracted to Tina on some level. But he remains tongue-tied when he tries calling her anonymously.  Yet for Chris to actually acknowledge his attraction to what his friend Manny calls the “she-male” triggers his anxieties about his masculinity.

In a way, both Tina and Chris struggle upward to gain a measure of self-respect.  However, Tina’s struggle primarily involves fighting such external problems as finding regular employment or scraping together the money for transitioning.  Chris’ struggles arise out of his unacknowledged fears that he will never be masculine enough to stand with his peers. His deliberately throwing a bat into the face of an opposing team’s pitcher was worth the black eye to him as it shows he will not be pushed around.

Flores deserves props for utilizing transgender talent help in front of and behind the camera in making this film.  It results in a work that feels more empathetic towards the transgender community. A conversation between Eliana and a Spanish-speaking transwoman friend of Tina’s will touch those sympathetic to transgender issues yet still uncomprehending on some level.  Also, if the cops want the transgender community’s cooperation in dealing with transphobic violence, they bear the onus of showing they’re not a bunch of Mannys and Chrises with badges.

Tina’s pre-transition life definitely can’t be called the titular metaphorical garden.  But compared to the tremendous uncertainties of post-transition life, the certainties of Tina’s old life seem comforting.   Taking the transition gamble means Tina is wagering that she can make it in America after undergoing the procedure. However, as professional poker player Annie Duke showed readers, taking a gamble and winning a gamble are two entirely different life events with potentially divergent outcomes.

***

The shorts program “Proceed With Caution” assembles films from queer filmmakers dealing with the emotional hazards of pursuing queer love and romance.

A working-class New York City neighborhood provides the setting for Jessie Levandov’s short “Baby.”  Teenaged Ali is sprucing up for a date. But as this short appears in an LGBT film festival, the date’s obviously not with the teen girl that he’s resting on at the short’s start.

Yet finding out who Ali’s heart really belongs to proves less important than seeing the details of neighborhood life that make staying in the closet an understandable choice.  The neighborhood’s small town ethos of everyone knowing everyone feels like a liability for romantic interests that aren’t part of the social norm. This truth makes a small gesture seen at the end feel like an act of quiet transgression.  “Baby,” the sensually low-key Donnie and Joe Emerson song that gives Levandov’s short its title, also creates a satisfying background atmosphere of existing desire that can’t be fully explicated.

Michael Elias Thomas’ dance drama “First Position” captures through movement the agony of losing one’s dreams.

Zachary has come to 1982 San Francisco to realize his dream of becoming a professional dancer.  Dance choreographer Jamie takes the newcomer under his wing and even makes the younger man his lover.  But Zachary’s development of KS lesions on his body is a death sentence as no effective drugs for treating AIDS symptoms exist yet.  What is the dying man’s desire to still dance: denial or defiance?

Thomas’ answer comes by showing many of the movements of Zachary’s dance taking place in his mind.  That creative decision pushes the viewer away from noting the growing lack of technical precision of Zachary’s movements and focusing more on the emotions associated with those movements.  What the viewer sees is lost love, anger at a cruel fate, and a determination to still live until he can no longer do so.

Blayze Teicher finds humor in a newly out man’s search for new hookups in the first three episodes of his web series “Interested In.”  College student Parker eagerly seeks a new lover as his pre-coming out lover has abandoned him for someone else. Yet his anxieties screw up such hooking up efforts as sex with a rebound lover and hanging onto a possible Mr. Right.

The webisodes feel like light bouncy well-told jokes.  The series also gets props for inspiring visiting a frozen yogurt shop to create a rainbow flag-colored dessert.

Strongest short in the program honors go to Matthew Puccini’s “Lavender.”  It may use a familiar story about a love triangle involving two ex-lovers. What makes this telling special is its skillfully ambiguous chronicling of the ex-lovers’ relationships and the younger ex-lover’s still smoldering feelings towards his older ex-beau.

What is certain is that the older ex-lover has an interest in theater and wants children.  The odd title refers to the colors of the paint swatches under consideration for his child’s future bedroom.

Outside those facts, determining the nature of the relationships among the triangle’s members is left for the viewer to argue over.  Does an early shot of the three members of the triangle in bed together show they’re in an open relationship? How unhappy is the older man’s current lover with the younger man’s presence at the quiet birthday celebration?  Did the younger ex-lover want to break up the older man’s current relationship?

A final last-minute twist will spark further viewer arguments regarding the film’s meaning.

In Matthew Risch’s enigmatic psychodrama “Stranger Out Of You,” the writer/director plays new Los Angeles transplant Matt.  He starts visiting the gay bar that’s located across the street from his apartment. Bar habitue leatherman John soon becomes an object of Matt’s fascination.  Yet what connection exists between Matt’s visions of having sex with a John lacking facial features to a surreal painting in Matt’s bedroom?

The film’s odd title (which comes from a country western-style song playing on the soundtrack) metaphorically describes the process by which Matt goes from being a newcomer to the bar to becoming a regular.  Over the course of the film, the main character’s appearance changes from his clean-shaven outsider look to growing a beard and/or wearing a ball cap. By the end, there are the stirrings of an encounter that completes Matt’s emotional cycle.

Yet there are puzzling elements in the film that makes it more than a simple tale of socialization.  The back of the painting in Matt’s room has the inscription “To M. From J.” What does it mean if the J of the inscription happens to be a previous John?  Is the painting a symbolic portrait of Matt and his unformed personality? What lies behind the nocturnal wall banging of Matt’s neighbor? Is Matt’s peephole sex show a sign of his dreaming or his mind’s slow disintegration?  The desire to formulate explanatory theories will depend on the viewer.

In Wesley Taylor’s comparatively straightforward “XaveMePlease,” an impulsive act turns into an object lesson in maturity.  Desperate Xavier tries to plug his bank account shortfall with a bit of sex for money. But the same desperation that propels him to hook up with “tracyhepburn” leads to the younger man’s letting his desperation get the better of him.

Taylor prefers to let Xavier’s regret and eventual atonement play out over his face.  This approach, instead of having Xavier make speeches detailing his growing emotional agony, is just one example of the director’s trusting the audience’s intelligence.  Another is having the hookup handle of “tracyhepburn” already tell the audience the guy with this pseudonym is probably an older man who definitely likes classic Hollywood movies.  While these flourishes are appreciated, “XaveMePlease” eventually turns out to be a slightly better take on a familiar story.

***

None of the titular flying insects are ever seen on-screen or even directly referenced in Bani Khoshnudi’s naturalistic drama “Fireflies.”   The film’s title is obviously a metaphor.

What the metaphor describes are the lives of the film’s three central characters.  Each of them has a small light of hope to guide them through the darkness of the larger world.  Ex-con Guillermo plans to eventually leave the port city of Vera Cruz and find his fortune in the far North.  Leti runs a small hotel in the city, but the return of ex-boyfriend Enrique brings up doubts about her emotional self-sufficiency.

 

The most emotionally complicated of the three main characters is the gay Iranian refugee Ramin.  He’s treating Vera Cruz as a way station for his ultimate destination. Yet it soon becomes clear that while Ramin has no desire to permanently stay in the port city, he lacks either a true final destination or the financial resources to enable his departure.  Could his growing attraction to ex-convict Guillermo offer a solution?

Khoshnudi’s attempts to tell this slice of life story depends on leaving out some narrative connective tissue.  For example, Guillermo remains an enigmatic object of desire lacking a back story. But this narrative approach truly backfires with Ramin’s character, as the resulting ambiguity drains a viewer’s desire to understand him.  The lash scars seen on Ramin’s back indicated he had probably been punished by the Iranian authorities for being gay. The Iranian exile’s presence in Vera Cruz could be explained as a “get out of Dodge now, worry about the consequences later” situation.

But what’s annoyingly unclear are way too many other parts of the main character’s story.  Does the photograph of Ramin’s presumed ex-lover mean that person has been disappeared and possibly killed by the authorities?  Did Ramin abandon the ex-lover to save his own skin? What does the main character’s desire to leave Vera Cruz for Turkey represent:  homesickness, his own general emotional alienation, or guilt over possible cowardice? Utterly fascinating cinema can be created out of creative narrative absences, as wonderfully seen in Joanna Hogg’s masterful “The Souvenir.”   But Khoshnudi’s naturalistic approach doesn’t lead to viewer engagement with his film and particularly his main character.

To be fair to the director, some perfectly good reasons are shown for Ramin’s desire to leave the Mexican port.  He barely speaks Spanish. The gay scene in Vera Cruz seems non-existent. His living close to the boats reflects his unstated belief that his Vera Cruz stay is a temporary one.   Yet these reasons also come across as excuses for not making a go at living in the port city.

Perhaps forced celibacy explains why Ramin misreads his relationship with Guillermo.  The latter’s physical hunkiness and use of ghetto slang are definitely attractive characteristics.  Yet the ex-convict never gives any sign of desire towards the Iranian who’s apparently permanently left his home country.

There’s no denying the potential poignancy of “Fireflies”’ dramatic set-up.  But the results feel half-baked at best.

***

“Kinky Boots: The Musical” is an HD recording of the titular musical’s performance at London’s Adelphi Theater in the West End.  Reprising their central roles are Killian Donnelly and Matt Henry. The latter won an Olivier award for his performance as a drag queen with unexpected roots.

Charlie Price’s (Donnelly) Northampton family has made shoes for generations.  When Charlie runs out of ideas to save the Price family factory from closure, unexpected salvation arrives in the form of drag queen performer Lola (Henry).  She needs women’s style boots which can support a man’s weight. Charlie and Lola realize both their needs can be met if the Price family factory starts producing kinky boots.

The combined efforts of multi-Tony Award winning book writer Harvey Fierstein, Tony Award winning lyricist and pop icon Cyndi Lauper, and two-time Tony Award winning director Jerry Mitchell make this adaptation of the 2005 British film of the same name work.  They don’t attempt to go for a kitchen-sink realism tale with songs about the harsh nature of capitalism. Instead, they lean into the comfort food nature of musical theater to deliver the desired happy ending. Doing so requires employing such well-worn tropes as strained father-son relations, looking out for others instead of one’s own self, and the female character who holds an unfulfilled crush for the main male character.  The entertaining result is not a knock at using such tropes but praise for using such tropes well.

Particularly memorable songs are “Sex Is In The Heel (which turns the Price factory floor into a musical stage of iron and rubber)” “The History of Wrong Guys (given a hilariously campy rendition by the actress playing Lauren),” “Not My Father’s Son (the touching bonding song between Charlie and Lola),” and the foot-stomping and hand-clapping act finales “Everybody Say Yeah” and “Raise You Up/Just Be.”

Add to the mix the colorful costumes worn by Lola’s backup dancers and some highly satisfying dance choreography, and the result is an entertainment that well justifies a trip outside San Francisco to catch a screening.

(“The Garden Left Behind” screens at 4:00 PM on June 25, 2019 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  For further information on the films and to order advance tickets, go to https://www.frameline.org/festival/ .)

(“Kinky Boots: The Musical” will be screened on June 25 and 29, 2019 by Fathom Events at such locales as the AMC Bay Street 16 (5614 Bay Street, Emeryville).  Check https://www.fathomevents.com/events/kinky-boots-the-musical for advance tickets and showtimes. )

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

Translate »