By Hans Pedersen, March 2018 Issue.
Every year the Sundance Film Festival viewers get to explore films that will hit the distribution pipeline in the coming months. From theatrical releases, to titles that pop up on HBO, Netflix or Amazon, the projects at the festival give LGBTQ audiences a glimpse into the future of our community’s visibility on-screen.
This year 123 feature-length films screened in Park City, Salt Lake City, and other Utah cities from Jan. 18 to 28 as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
This, by no means, is a comprehensive list of LGBTQ-themed offerings showcased this year. It is, however, our list seven stand-out movies (in no particular order) that will be coming to screens or streaming platforms near you.
The chilling indie Lizzie is a fresh take on the story that inspired the schoolyard chant, “Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks.” It’s a New England-style Merchant Ivory film punctuated with moments of grindhouse gore. Based on the infamous 1892 murders of the Borden family, director Craig William Macneill shares this female-centered story of how Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the new family maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), are both victimized in different ways by Lizzie’s scheming father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan).
Subjugated by a patriarchy that has relegated her to “old maid” status, fiercely independent 32-year-old Lizzie learns her father and stepmother are secretly planning to send her away to an institution, ostensibly to treat her seizures. It’s also no secret in the home that Andrew creeps up to Bridget’s room at night, sexually assaulting her. You can sense the claustrophobia surrounding Bridget and Lizzie, kindred spirits who become lovers as they turn to each other for comfort.
Elegantly shot with camerawork that envelops the women in the windows and framework of the suffocating home, the film contains such slumbering shots that often last a bit too long. But Macneill makes it easy for viewers to sympathize with their desire to escape their misogynistic cage. Fact-based, with hypothetical narratives woven throughout, Lizzie is expected to hit theaters later this year.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
A coming-of-age tale that won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category at Sundance 2018, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is set in the 1990s and based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth. Directed by Desiree Akhavan, who helmed the Sundance hit Appropriate Behavior, this sensitive and inspired story focuses on a teenager named Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) whose religious aunt sends her to a so-called gay conversion therapy center after she’s caught messing around with the prom queen in the back seat of a car.
Skillfully demonstrating how good-intentioned people can be so hateful, Akhavan balances humor with the pain of growing up amid intolerance. In this acclaimed film, the staff at the Christian-based clinic, called God’s Promise, utilize disturbing and often ridiculous methods in a futile attempt to change Cameron’s sexual orientation, but she remains true to herself. As she bonds with other victims of homophobia, Cameron learns the importance of creating our own connections when our biological families fail us.
One of the more unique Sundance standouts is White Rabbit, which was featured in the NEXT category for smaller-budget indies. Comedian Vivian Bang stars as Sophia, a Korean-born Los Angeles performance artist who shares her work with the public in supermarkets, fast food shops or the park. Armed with a microphone, a portable speaker and a brand-new persona, she launches into performances which pose questions about the LA riots that decimated Korean grocery stores 25 years ago.
She’s an artist on a quest to make herself heard authentically, but her YouTube videos showing her plunking her face into plates of food seem to get little traction. But after wrapping up one of her odd jobs to help make ends meet, Sophia finds a romantic connection with another woman and starts stalking her on social media. Based on Bang’s performance art, this unconventional tale, written and directed by Darryl Wein, centers around the search for love and meaning amid ethnocentric attitudes.
A Kid Like Jake
The groundbreaking drama A Kid Like Jake is about two Brooklyn parents, Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory”) who disagree on the best way to raise their 4-year-old gender-nonconforming son, Jake. With kindergarten about to start, the family is having a rough time covering the tuition bill. And Jake’s preference for dolls and pink tutus seems like a way to help the toddler earn a scholarship, given the school’s drive for diversity.
While Greg exudes a cool, placid attitude about their sweet child’s development, Alex begins to worry they are permitting their four-year-old’s gender to be defined too early. As they disagree on the best way to raise Jake, the conflict starts to undermine their marriage until it explodes in this movie’s final act.
Director Silas Howard (Transparent, This Is Us) delivers a set of complex characters in this fascinating film, which co-stars Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, and was adapted by Daniel Pearl from his off-Broadway play.
The HBO documentary Believer, starring Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds, who grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is an incredible documentary that deserves to gain visibility in the coming year. A straight, married man, Reynolds began to realize the Mormon teachings that he promulgated as a young person contributed to the skyrocketing suicide rate of LGBTQ youth in Utah, which the doc shows has nearly tripled in the past decade.
The popular singer grapples with his faith as he attempts to find common ground between the Mormon Church and the LGBTQ community. He joins forces with gay singer Tyler Glenn from Neon Trees, and the film chronicles their attempts to launch the LoveLoud concert in Provo, Utah, for the Mormon and LGBTQ communities.
Interspersed with community members’ stories about the shame, depression and suicidal feelings spawned by LDS teachings, Believer is nonetheless a truly uplifting project. The impact of the LoveLoud movement on Utah is inspiring, while the doublespeak from the LDS church, as documented in the film, proves how much more work remains to find common ground. Directed by Don Argott, Believer, airs on HBO this summer.
Gay folks pop up in places you might not always expect; after all, we are everywhere, part of every facet of life.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) brough his latest project, a documentary about Fred Rogers entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, to this year’s festival. Animated sequences are peppered between archival footage and interviews with the TV host’s wife, Joanne Rogers, and gay actor François Clemmons, who appeared on the legendary PBS children’s series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as Officer Clemmons.
The doc reveals how nearly five decades ago, Mr. Rogers taught tolerance and acceptance and, in once specific scenario, broke down racial barriers by having the two men put their feet in a wading pool together, sending a clear message to closed-minded opponents of integrated pools.
Yet we also learn our idols are not perfect: Mr. Rogers’ obstructionist reaction when he learned the actor was spotted at a Greenwich Village gay bar is surprising. Of course, we learn from this touching doc that the compassionate host comes to accept Clemmons just the way he is. Expect lots of acclaim for this doc, airing in early June on PBS.
The Happy Prince
Additionally, gay actor Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding) does double-duty on both sides of the camera, writing and directing the inspired Sundance biopic The Happy Prince as he plays esteemed author and playwright Oscar Wilde.
The non-chronological story glosses over Wilde’s conviction for gay sex, instead focusing on his final years in France following his fall from grace — a period encompassing some of his most profound writing and most intimate experiences. The woozy, dream-like narrative dramatizes his relationships with two different men, and with Constance (Emily Watson), his estranged wife, while showing how the impoverished purveyor of wit found humor in it all, and contyinued to relentlessly seek love and creative outlets in whatever taverns and alleyways still welcomed him, despite the oppression he faced.
For more information on these titles and more, visit sundance.org.