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by Peter Knegt
December 17, 2012 1:29 PM
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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

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"

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."

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.

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14 Comments

  • anonymous | December 19, 2012 2:55 PMReply

    Mainstream films, even independent films, are way behind mainstream television when it comes to this kind of diversity. I don't see much progress.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    If there is a new GLBT cinema renaissance occurring, it's occurring without the Ladies or the Bisexuals or Trangenders being present, if we look at this year's offerings. When MOSQUITA Y MARI is the only relevant non-gay-male narrative in a three page article on an entire year of cinema, I humbly disagree there's a big movement happening, and that's not a knock on the author necessarily, in so much as a comment on what was released or even made well this past year. At least WISH ME AWAY made the airwaves on Showtime this year after winning a number of doc awards in 2011, and not banished to DVD or VOD for only niche audiences to seek out. As for the end-of-year love for KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, sadly it's just another example of the tragic love story in queer cinema history, in a very long list of such depressing examples of queer 'love' on film. The acting is admirable, but given how he lived this film or a version of it, I don't think even Ira Sachs himself would call it a film to feel good about, beyond the ability to survive such a strained, ill-fitted relationship. Two hours of watching another gay relationship quagmire doesn't exactly make for a great date movie or a new movement in the genre; it's no wonder it didn't find a theatrical audience, whereas the scene-stealing Ezra Miller in PERKS is a big part of that movie's success, creatively and monetarily. So while this year's specifically queer films may influence future filmmakers in some vague way (less so than last year's much better and all-inclusive narratives), narrative directors and producers and financiers would do well to remember the last major queer release's key line of dialogue - "You gotta give 'em hope" - if they want to have truly creative or audience breakthroughs. All of the docs in the first Queeries piece were far better films than any narrative this year, in message and expression and execution.

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  • rubi | December 17, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    You could argue Lincoln's a gay or bisexual character based on history, though the movie Lincoln doesn't deal with Lincoln's sexuality at all really.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 1:43 PM

    Actually Rubi, not only does Sally Field's first scene in LINCOLN indicate a rather sexless relationship between her and her husband, the Joseph Cross character of Lincoln's assistant has a rather curious late-night bedroom conversation with Lincoln. While neither are explicit - who would expect as much in a Spielberg film? - they can be read as sly nods to the rumored Lincoln sexuality in Kushner's excellent script.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 8:40 PM

    Nowhere in this article does it say it does.

  • Jake H. | December 17, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    Thanks for such an extensive, well-written take on this!

  • jeremy wilker | December 17, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    Thanks for the recommendation, Bob, I'll seek that one out. Certainly "Keep the Lights On" was one of the best, most-powerful, films of the year regardless of LGBT "status." Not an easy watch, but damn good.

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    One film which should definitely be part of this discussion is Travis Mathews' I WANT YOUR LOVE. Not only was it an artistic achievement in its evocative visualization of San Francisco locations at various times of day and night and its accurate depiction of a certain slice of a gay milieu found not only in S.F. but around the world (the old specificity/universality syndrome) -- but it incorporated explicit depictions of sexual acts in a natural, sometimes off-hand way. In some ways, a milestone. [Full disclosure: I was a consultant on I WANT YOUR LOVE, but Travis certainly had all the goods in hand before I came on board.]

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 5:20 PM

    Peter: Thanks for the clarification. Although IWYL is a 2012 film, I hope more people will have a chance to see it on the big screen in 2013. DP did a great job. And yes, Jeremy, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON -- like WEEKEND before it -- was one of the year's best, "regardless of LGBT status"!

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 4:27 PM

    Bob: I generally focused on theatrical releases from last year (which hopefully I WANT YOUR LOVE is next year), and more over -- as you know -- I myself was involved in I WANT YOUR LOVE and that made me feel like I couldn't exactly be objective when discussing it critically...

  • Kristian Lin | December 17, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    I just finished watching "Chely Wright: Wish Me Away," an absorbing portrait of just how much harder the coming-out process is when you're famous and your fanbase is full of right-wingers who disapprove of homosexuality and the whole process is dragged out over two months. In her private moments, the singer seems to be losing it on a constant basis, and how many of us would not be under similar circumstances? Would be interested to hear the author's thoughts on that.

  • Christianne Benedict | December 17, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    I was also pleased with The Wise Kids and Tomboy, though both of these are also technically 2011 films. A case could be made for Richard Linklater's Bernie, as well. In the Family was awesome.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 2:56 PM

    @Christianne: I ended up removing a whole paragraph about "Bernie" that just didn't fit the rest of the article (did the same with The Paperboy, for what thats worth). It's a very curious case of representation (one I personally quite enjoyed) that perhaps begs its own column.