Outfest Los Angeles 2020: Highlights From This Year’s Virtual Fest

Amid a pandemic, Outfest shines a light on new queer classics.

As film festivals all over the world continue to adapt to an ever-changing landscape amid a pandemic that continues to make packed movie theater screenings a thing of the recent past, it’s important to acknowledge what precisely is lost when a fest like, say, Outfest Los Angeles is forced to move its lineup to a virtual platform (and a number of drive-in screenings). For a space that has long functioned as a community-builder, bringing LGBTQ audiences together to celebrate stories and filmmakers that speak to and for the queer community, the loss of that in-person contact feels different than mourning merely the experience of being in the same movie theater.

Watching these movies in isolation (well, barring one, which I experienced at a drive-in where its ecstatic moments were punctuated by car horns in lieu of rapturous applause) was disorienting precisely because they all called forth the importance of building a community — be it across generations or across ideological differences. These films deserve packed screenings. But more than that, they deserve giddy audiences who feel seen (and tickled, and turned on, and addressed) by them. The entire lineup had lots of gems but I’m singling out five that I’ve not stopped thinking about since I first saw them.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please

Excavating queer history demands imaginative leaps. So much of history-making depends on documentation that to explore identities and characters whose records have long remained invisible (hidden, buried, sublimated, ignored, or otherwise outright destroyed) is to embark on a project that requires a kind of flair that’s often seen as antithetical to historiographical endeavors. In the case of Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s P.S. Burn This Letter Please, the documentary’s playful flourishes complement the history it’s trying to unearth. A series of letters addressed to “Reno” in the 1950s and 1960s tell the interconnected stories of a number of drag performers, female impersonators (or “femme mimics,” as one prefers to be described) in the New York City area.

Limned with colorful lingo that captures the type of secret language LGBTQ people have long made their own (“trade,” “mopped”), the letter open a vision of pre-Stonewall gay life that’s as fabulous as it was dangerous. And while the letters structure Seligman and Tiexiera’s doc (with delicious voice-overs courtesy of the likes of Cole Escola and Robin de Jesus), it’s the testimonials from Reno’s pen pals as they’re confronted with the words they wrote decades ago (at times bitchy and gossippy, at others vulnerable and wounded) that makes the film all the more remarkable. Add in the fact that historians of gay life like George Chauncey, Esther Newton, and Michael Adams help contextualize the world of pageants and balls and bars where these drag queens once thrived at a time when homosexuality and cross-dressing could get one arrested, and P.S. Burn This Letter emerges as necessary viewing for anyone who currently enjoys the art of drag. A love letter to a generation of pioneers that’s witty and pretty (and plenty gay), this deserves to become an instant classic.

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Two Eyes

Offering a decidedly different approach to the way queer history gets carried down, Travis Fine’s Two Eyes is a triptych that interweaves three separate timelines to tell a story about how those who break away from the norm have long had to make their own paths. In late 19th century Montana, a traveling artist leaves his wife behind as he embarks on a journey that finds him falling in love with his Native American guide. In the late 1970s, a young teen finds their humdrum life upturned with the arrival of a worldly young woman who whisks him on an adventure that takes them to Los Angeles. And in present-day Wyoming, we meet a trans teen who’s dealing with a recent loss with the help of their non-binary therapist.

Despite being structured by tragedy (death and disillusionment loom large in each of these tellings) and digging into some of the darker aspects of queer life (shame, discrimination, self-hatred, even a hate crime), Two Eyes preaches hope. Its characters may not all survive but the film wants you to, especially if you’re questioning your sexuality, your gender identity, or perhaps even both. In this Two Eyes feels driven by the very tenets of gender theorist Kate Bornstein, who lights up the screen in the contemporary portion of the film. Like her books Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us and Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws, Fine’s film wants to undo the gender binary while acknowledging the hard work such a task demands all the while honoring those who have come before and paved the way.

Tahara

To say social media has changed how we relate to one another is, in 2020, beyond an understatement. Thankfully, Olivia Peace’s Tahara doesn’t make that insight its main thesis as much as it uses it as the building block of its narrative. Visually, of course, it’s hard to miss how its 1:1 aspect ratio echoes Instagram posts as well as the way such imagery helps introduce Peace’s characters, including Rachel Sennott’s Hannah and Madeline Grey DeFreece’s Carrie: it’s through a series of old Insta pics that we’re shown just how close these two are before we spend a day with them at a friend’s funeral service for their former Hebrew school classmate. In between discussions about grief and fumbling attempts at flirting while paying their respects, the two young girls find themselves coming apart, as one looks inward and the other remains hooked on how others see her.

But at the center of Tahara is a kiss, a show stopping moment that forces Carrie (if not, alas, Hannah) to reassess how she feels about her BFF. Offering a break from the film’s aesthetic, the kiss hurtles us into a brief animated interlude that literally changes how we’re looking at these two teens. By the time we return to the Insta-inspired frame that makes every shot feel both crowded and isolating, Peace’s film emerges as a keen-eyed examination of contemporary teenage intimacy.

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Breaking Fast

Amid a curious kind of renaissance of the queer romantic comedy (see also: Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon, Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move, Alice Wu’s The Half of It, Clea DuVall’s upcoming Happiest Season) we find Mike Mosallam’s Breaking Fast. Set in West Hollywood during the month of Ramadan, this modern romcom finds its leading man, Mo (Haaz Sleiman) still heartbroken over his breakup with his longtime partner the year before. When he meets the dashing Kal (Michael Cassidy) and eases into a nightly routine of getting together for iftar (Kal, as it turns out, rivals Mo in his culinary skills) he’ll have to figure out whether his rigid ideals of what he expects from others can make room for the affable working actor. On its surface, the tender and funny flick checks all of the boxes of its genre (a lovely meet-cute, a hilarious gay BFF, a will-they-or-won’t-they-moment capped by an outlandish public gesture of goodwill). But throughout, Breaking Fast is constantly pushing back against its generic confines.

An impromptu four person iftar get together, for instance, turns into a heated if nuanced conversation about faith and sexuality that doesn’t merely pit the bumbling white dude who knows nothing about Ramadan against his date, Mo’s BFF Sam (a scene-stealing Amin El Gamal) but forces the two best friends to discuss how different their experience as gay Muslims truly is, rooted as they are in different upbringings and at times opposing visions of what Islam means to them. It’s one of the many moments that make Breaking Fast feel wholly fresh even as it is so obviously playing with as well-worn a genre as you can think of.

Vento Seco

The title for Daniel Nolasco’s Vento Seco (Dry Wind) lends itself to plenty of “thirst” puns. All of them would be appropriate as ways of describing this very horny film set in the area around Catalan in Brazil’s state of Goiás which is, as the arid landscapes that punctuate its visuals constantly remind us, indeed very very dry. That dryness emerges as a metaphor for the life Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo) lives. His days are spent working at a fertilizer plant (sneaking an outdoor fuck with a co-worker at a nearby wooded area) and his nights spent either daydreaming about leather daddies or cruising bars where he lustfully gazes upon glistening bodies that beckon his eyes and his desire.

From its opening scene to its delectable final image, Nolasco places viewers in Sandro’s leery headscape: his camera lingers in crotches, in sweaty armpits, in luscious lips and, in its more audacious scenes, in engorged members. But there’s always an apprehension about this gaze. Sandro’s eyes may direct our view toward the smorgasbord of men around him — including Maicon, a newcomer who looks like a blond Tom of Finland figure made flesh (an oppressively sculpted Rafael Teóphilo) — but they constantly telegraph a hesitation, an insecurity that reveals his own hangups. Doughier than those he lusts after and less comfortable in his own skin than even the co-worker who starts openly flirting with Maicon much to Sandro’s chagrin (and earning the ire of Maicon’s very macho brother), Sandro’s erotic fantasies remain riddled with the spectre of self-doubt, which ends up animating Nolasco’s steamy tale. Intent on pushing the boundaries of how sex (on and off screen) can help drive narrative storytelling, Vento Seco is an erotic fever dream that’s also a wistful character portrait.

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