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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 17, 2012 at 1:29PM

Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Channing Tatum films in that top 25.
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Last week's inaugural edition of this column already mentioned three documentaries -- each dealing with the AIDS crisis from a historical perspective -- in Jeffrey Schwarz's "Vito," David France's "How To Survive a Plague" and Jim Hubbard's "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP." That column already spent a good thousand words explaining their importance, but they definitely warrant this brief re-mention given their considerable contribution to queer indie cinema in 2012. And three exceptional biographical docs (each in part about LGBT people breaking into mainstream media) should be noted alongside them: Kieran Turner's "Jobriath A.D," which details the life of the first openly gay rock star, Jobriath; Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf's "Wish Me Away," which looks at how Chely Wright became the first commercial country music singer to come out; Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch's "Me @ the Zoo," which chronicles several years in the self-recorded life of unabashedly gay viral video star Chris Crocker.

Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"
Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"

Their narrative counterparts also offer many worthy exemplifications of thoughtful LGBT representations. Though not really "LGBT films" -- Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" and Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" each present a queer person as part of a trio of wonderfully well-realized characters dealing with a critical moment in life together. Both funny, intelligent and at least seemingly confident in their respective sexualities, Rosemarie DeWitt's Hannah (in "Sister") and Ezra Miller's Patrick (in "Perks") are never played as gay second bananas to the heterosexual coupling that makes up the rest of the trios. With Patrick, this goes so far as him truly being the life of the film's party, and despite his struggles (he's sleeping with one of the school's star football players, who refuses to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality), he is never really portrayed as a victim (Hannah's situation is a bit trickier to discuss without spoiler alerts, so just see "Your Sister's Sister" if you haven't already).

More exclusively queer examples include Jonathan Lisecki's hilarious gay dude-straight girl romantic comedy "Gayby," Travis Fine's affecting 1970s-set gay adoption drama "Any Day Now" (featuring one of Alan Cumming's best performances), and Aurora Guerrero's heartfelt Chicana girl love story "Mosquita Y Mari" (which may never mention the word "lesbian" or "queer" but that's simply true to its context) all very much deserve to seen. These very different films each premiered at a major US festival (SXSW, Tribeca and Sundance, respectively) before deservedly dominating the LGBT film festival circuit (and all getting theatrical releases, "Any Day Now" just this past weekend).

But the two best American queer films of the year -- in my mind at least -- are Patrick Wang's "In The Family" and Ira Sachs' "Keep The Lights On." The former is technically a 2011 release (it had a tiny limited release in New York last November), but made its way to most markets (and this writer) in 2012 and was remarkably underappreciated either way.

"Keep the Lights On."
"Keep the Lights On."

From first-time filmmaker Wang, the small town Tennessee-set "Family" relays the heartbreaking story of Joey (Wang himself), a man struggling to maintain custody of the six-year old son (remarkably authentic child actor Trevor St. John) he was raising with his boyfriend after his boyfriend is tragically killed in a car accident. The boyfriend's will (written before they had gotten together) states that custody of kin is to go to his sister, who passionlessly tears the child away from Joey as a result. Despite its whopping 169-minute running time, the film is restrained and subtle in ways that typically bog down "issue movies" (see the aformentioned -- and similarly themed -- "Any Day Now," which was certainly admirable but occasionally too melodramatic) and culminates in one of the most emotionally raw cinematic experiences of this year or last.

Similarly devastating, "Lights" -- openly gay Sachs' first film with queer content since his 1997 debut "The Delta" -- paints a painfully realistic portrait of an epic relationship. Set in 1990s New York, the loosely autobiographical film follows a Danish documentarian (Thure Lindhardt) who falls for Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer. Sachs charts what follows over a volatile ten year time frame, with each man struggling with their own private compulsions and addictions – often at the expense of their relationship. With strong performances and a screenplay that defies convention, “Keep The Lights On” captures a poignant love story that could work as a stunning double feature with last year's "Weekend."

Notably, other than "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "Your Sister's Sister," none of these films grossed even $500,000 at the U.S. box office (the combined gross of "Lights" and "Family" is less than $300,000 -- which is probably how much money "The Hobbit" made while you read this article). While certainly some audiences saw the films in ways that wouldn't count toward these grosses (film festivals, VOD), it's a shame that this fantastic new era of LGBT filmmaking is not finding its way to even a fraction of the audience that meets "Modern Family" and "Glee" week after week.

So to answer this que(e)ry, yes, it was indeed a good year for LGBT representation in American cinema. But how much does it matter if nobody seemed to notice?

"Que(e)ries" is a new biweekly column by Indiewire Senior Editor Peter Knegt. Email him for suggestions for future columns at peter@indiewire.com. He'd love for it to a be a collaborative effort.

This article is related to: Queer Cinema, Queer Issues





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