The Frameline Film Festival wraps up this weekend in San Francisco with a fascinating array of docs and features about gay lives both closeted and open. (Read previous coverage of the fest here.) Given the recent overturning of DOMA and the renewal of same-sex marriage in California, this is an especially joyous time to celebrate independent LGBT cinema. Here are a few films to look forward to this weekend as well as “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” which should expect distribution in some form later this year. Trailers after the jump.
Born This Way (Dirs. Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann)
Named of course after Lady Gaga’s billboard-topping gay anthem, “Born This Way” is a fascinating, fearless documentary about the homosexual taboo in Cameroon. Though in California we have much to celebrate this week — and rightly so — LGBT populations of the rest of the world continue to struggle. In the West African nation, where HIV/AIDS is thought to have originated, gay people are at risk of imprisonment of up to five years, often with little evidence other than local rumors. The film’s first shot establishes the shame-enshrouded closet to which gay people are relegated in Cameroon. Lit only by candlelight, two women discuss the clandestine way of lesbian life, how if seen even hugging in public, they could go to jail.
“Born This Way” highlights one organization that has been able to thrive in the shadows: Alternatives Cameroon offers care to individuals with HIV/AIDS as well as prevention methods. But in terms of counseling and community building within the center, the country’s health ministry has been less than favorable. “They allow us to exist, but we have to be discreet,” according to one volunteer. Because of the risky nature of making a film like this, many of the employees and patients of Alternatives must remain anonymous, with their faces blurred. At the aching heart of this troubling yet important documentary is Cedric, a young man who ponders the dangers of coming out to his Christian mother. Thankfully, the LGBT people of Cameroon have places they can dance and be together, but as far as social visibility and acceptance go, they have a perilous road ahead.
G.B.F. (Dir. Darren Stein)
Directed by Darren Stein (1999’s “Jawbreaker) and written by first-timer George Northy, Frameline’s closing night selection “G.B.F.” is pure pleasure, and one of the festival’s gems. Though we have seen the story of a high school boy’s difficult coming-out time and again at Frameline and in the dubious selection of gay titles on Netflix Instant, this is a sweet, snappy take on that much-tilled genre. In “G.B.F.,” Tanner (Michael J. Willett) is inexplicably outed by his classmates but rather than become the social pariah of his high school halls, he’s suddenly the class hero, and every girl in the popular clique wants him as her gay best friend.
With quick-witted dialogue and a scene-stealing Molly Tarlov of MTV’s “Awkward,” the film shrewdly avoids the cliches of the dime-a-dozen coming-out-and-of-age film. There is no sexually awkward first gay love here — instead, it’s a celebration of friendship among queer kids, with ample doses of heart and humor thanks to a great cast and especially the always irreverent, frenzied Megan Mullally as a mom coming to terms with her son’s sexuality.
Test (Dir. Chris Mason Johnson)
“Test” smartly sets the moody tale of a brooding loner against an historical backdrop, and then gives its characters real lives to lead. A dancer in 1985 San Francisco, Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is sick with an escalating sense of dread as the outbreak of the then elusive and unknowable AIDS virus begins to spread. He also feels the stress of his craft weigh down on him after his dance instructor tells him to make it look more “manly” even though the metaphoric choreography, with all its male musculatures on sweaty display, is totally gay.
The film’s ominous atmosphere — almost oppressively sinister at times — makes for an unsettlingly realistic look at the miasma of AIDS panic in San Francisco. The 80s were a time when no one knew what really caused the virus, how it was transmitted or how it could be treated. Every mole and skin blemish was suddenly a life or death matter, and the possible beginnings of Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the telltale signs of the virus.
The lithe Marlowe and his staggering cheek bones give a nuanced performance as a relatable young gay man who isn’t some stock character out of the book of queer cinema. Like “Keep the Lights On” and “Weekend” — the two best English-language films about gay male life of this century, by the way — “Test” captures the rhythm of gay reality, the sloppy vacuity and fleeting fulfillment of one-night stands, spikes of self-loathing and a sense of freedom amid a sprawling urban anonymity. I couldn’t help but think of Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” because like Corinne Marchand’s character, Marlowe’s endures a series of life-affirming encounters in the time between taking the AIDS test and painfully awaiting the results. Director Chris Mason Johnson nails the period details of the 80s — the touch-tone phones, the Walkman that soundtracks Frankie’s jaunts through the city, the initial gay resistance to the condom — making for an authentic film about gay life.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (Dir. Nicholas D. Wrathall)
In the documentary section, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” is a thoughtful film about the legendary writer, cultural theorist and political thinker, though its talking heads-style approach smacks a bit of made-for-TV quality. Intercut with candid interviews with the late Vidal (who died last year) as well as rare footage of his Hollywood heyday — and the subsequent existential crisis that came with his move from novelist to script-scribing serf — the doc traces his incendiary career and personal life. But refreshingly, it doesn’t make a big splash about his gay life. Instead, this is a portrait of Vidal as artist and critic, rife with his droll, biting aphorisms and intimate conversations with close friends like Tim Robbins and Christopher Hitchens. For Vidal neophytes and aficionados alike, “United States of Amnesia” offers an entertaining X-ray of one of America’s most fearless intellectual leaders. Read our TOH! take from the film’s premiere at Tribeca here.