Lights, Camera, Sundance

Annual film festival showcases fierce lineup of LGBTQ-themed titles and talent

By Hans Pedersen, February 2016 Issue.

Six hundred miles north of Phoenix, the Sundance Film Festival showcases some of the edgiest voices in cinema amidst the frozen landscape and frosty mountains surrounding downtown Park City, Utah.

Each year, movie lovers, critics, industry members, actors and directors hunker down in theaters for hours, hibernating like bears to watch the newest crop of independent films.

Imagine watching an early screening of The Kids Are All Right with Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore sitting right behind you – that’s Sundance. Bonus: this film festival offers a sneak peek at new titles before the marketing machine begins to shape our opinions of them.

Sundance 2016, which runs Jan. 21 to 31, will include movies featuring such LGBTQ icons as actress Ellen Page, anchor Anderson Cooper and the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as several works by LGBTQ filmmakers.

Here’s a closer at some of the upcoming LGBTQ-themed films that will hit big screens or home theaters later this year.


Other People.

Other People

Jesse Plemons played a sweet guy on “Friday Night Lights,” and a calm-headed killer on “Breaking Bad.” Here he plays a gay comedy writer who moves to Sacramento to take care of his dying mother (Molly Shannon), and must cope with his annoying conservative family. This drama, with light-hearted touches, is one of the festival’s opening night films; the semi-autobiographical work was written and directed by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Chris Kelly.

First Girl I Loved

Kerem Sanga writes and directs this selection in the NEXT category, which specializes in up-and-coming talent. Anne (Dylan Gelula) is a nerdy 17-year-old Los Angeles high school student who falls for a popular softball player named Sasha (Briana Hildebrand). But when Anne’s buddy, Clifton, starts throwing out barbs and tries to prevent any romance between the girls, it becomes clear he has a secret love for his best bud.


First Girl I Loved.

Spa Night

The debut movie by Andrew Ahn explores two disparate worlds: gay hookups in LA spas and the region’s Korean-American community. David (Joe Seo) is a closeted young Korean-American on the cusp of manhood, hiding his love for men from his immigrant family in Koreatown. When tough times force him to take a job at a gay spa, the sexual activity there both arouses him and freaks him out as he considers exploring this whole new world.

Spa Night.

Spa Night.


This acclaimed Spanish-language film focuses on Jesus (Héctor Medina), who works as a hairdresser for female impersonators at a Havana nightclub. Performing with the other drag queens onstage is his dream, and he receives encouragement from one of his mentors. But when a twist of fate brings his abusive father back into his life, he faces either bittersweet reconciliation or rejection. Viva is expected to become available as early as February.



Uncle Howard

Uncle Howard

Uncle Howard.

Aaron Brookner’s most recent film focuses on his own uncle, director of Burroughs: The Movie, Howard Bookner, who passed away from AIDS a quarter century ago. Using a combination of archival interviews with the late filmmaker and never-before-seen footage of Burroughs and folks like Allen Ginsberg, Jim Jarmusch, Matt Dillon and Madonna, the young director creates a moving portrait of his late uncle and idol. The end result may make you feel like you’re stepping into downtown Manhattan in the 1980s.


Voguing remains a vibrant pastime in New York City, and this documentary demonstrates how it thrives in the Kiki community – empowering LGBTQ youth of color with a safe space to regulate themselves. This American/Swedish documentary by director Sara Jordeno gives us a fresh look at the Paris Is Burning scene 25 years later; she also co-wrote the film with Kiki community leader Twiggy Pucci Garcon. It’s an up-close view of performers who embrace traditions and innovation as they assert their rights and live out their dreams.



Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures 

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the brilliant minds behind Eyes of Tammy Faye) direct this portrait of the controversial artist who rocked the worlds of art and politics in the 1980s. Newly uncovered interviews with Mapplethorpe and his close friends help trace the scandals provoked by his artwork, which depicted explicit gay themes, leather-clad men and sex toys in use, offending the sensibilities of many in the 1980s.

Nothing Left Unsaid

Liz Garbus (director of What Happened Miss Simone?) returns to Sundance with this profile of maverick Gloria Vanderbilt, who is interviewed by her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. The fashion maven opens up about their family life in interviews with the openly gay journalist, accompanied by lots of family footage. This revealing documentary by the Oscar-nominated director suggests history can indeed repeat itself.


Jason Benjamin directs this insightful documentary that looks at gender fluidity through a different kind of lens: it focuses on Bindle & Keep, a tailoring business in Brooklyn that provides their gender non-conforming clients with custom-made suits that actually fit.

Film Hawk

He’s the man known for helping discover talented filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Barbara Hammer: indie film expert Bob Hawk was a preacher’s son who grew up gay and ultimately became known for uncovering raw talent in the American independent film scene at places like Sundance.

Author: The JT Leroy Story

Gifted and notoriously shy author JT Leroy may have gotten shout-outs from celebrities, but his glitzy lifestyle, indeed his actual existence, turned out to be a pure fabrication. The author’s identity, along with the books, were the carefully constructed work of 40-year-old phone sex operator Laura Alpbert. Director Jeff Feuerzeig sheds light on a wilder side of the literary world.




Actress Ellen Page, who recently came out, stars in Tallulah, playing a bohemian gal living out of her car who tries to protect another woman’s baby by claiming the child is her own.

Additionally, Several LGBTQ-identified filmmakers are screening their movies at Sundance 2016.

The Intervention

Lesbian actress Clea DuVall directs her debut film, The Intervention, about a weekend retreat involving four couples, three of whom are planning a “marriage intervention” for a partnership that’s on the rocks. The film co-stars Natasha Lyonne (But I’m a Cheerleader).

Life, Animated

Life, Animated.

Life, Animated

Roger Ross Williams (director of God Loves Uganda) returns with Life, Animated, a fascinating story of how an autistic youngster was closed off from the world until he was deluged with Disney animated movies, and his identification with Ariel and Simba helped tear down his private walls.

Little Men

Also, Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Keep the Lights On, two gay-themed movies that premiered at Sundance) returns to the festival with Little Men. It’s the story of a teenager who moves to Brooklyn and befriends another boy, but a rent dispute between their families threatens to derail their friendship.

For more information on Sundance 2016, including festival program or screening schedule, visit