Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.
Some of the most diverse portraits of LGBT life in American film from the past couple of decades have had the Sundance Film Festival to thank for breathing life into them. This extends as far back as Jennie Livingston’s masterpiece “Paris is Burning,” and more recently includes such offerings as Dee Rees’ “Pariah.” There will always be higher profile films depicting the anguish and pressures of being a white gay man or woman, but the festival goes out of its way to find more marginalized queer voices that are also willing to engage with issues like race, class, gender or religion, even if a lot of these gems tend to be buried under the glut of coverage during the festival mayhem. Here are a few worth looking out for this year.
A Sundance Regular Gets Personal
A Sundance regular since winning the Grand Jury Prize in 2009 for “The Maid,” Chilean director Sebastián Silva returns to the festival this year with “Nasty Baby.” Set in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, Silva himself co-stars with “TV on the Radio” frontman Tunde Adebimpe as a gay couple trying to conceive a child with the help of their friend Polly (played by Kristen Wiig). Silva’s first U.S.-set film is highly anticipated not just for its intriguing choices in casting, but for the personal aspects of the narrative and intersectional implications suggested by its premise.
In addition to featuring a gay couple of color, the screenplay features a mentally ill homeless man played by Reg E. Cathey (from “The Wire” and “House of Cards”), known only as “The Bishop,” who torments his new neighbors. The film seems to be as personal as ever for Silva; along with the queer aspect of the story, he shot much of the film in his own Brooklyn apartment and neighborhood. If Silva properly executes the tension between the young gay family and the less affluent longtime residents of the borough, “Nasty Baby” could be one of the more complicated explorations of race, sexuality, mental illness and class in this year’s festival.
One of Filmmaker Magazine’s Top 25 New Faces of Independent Film, Matt Sobel will be bringing his feature debut “Take Me to the River” to Sundance this year. The film stars Logan Miller (“Night Moves,” Sundance premiere “Stanford Prison Experiment”) as a Californian teen who plans to come out of the closet at his Nebraskan family reunion — until more disturbing secrets of his family emerge. If Sobel’s own words to Filmmaker are to be trusted, the film features a sequence that might be one of the more controversial talking points at this year’s festival, and perhaps not for the queasiest of viewers (especially those traumatized by abuse in their own pasts).
Joining “Nasty Baby” and “Take Me to the River” in Sundance’s NEXT program is “Tangerine” (not to be confused with “Tangerines,” the current Oscar nominee from Estonia). A dramedy following the lives of trans sex workers fresh out of jail around the Christmas season, “Tangerine” is the latest from Sean Baker — co-creator of series “Greg the Bunny” and director of “Starlet” — who has been known in his film career for transporting viewers to new and distinct slices of lives to previously unacquainted audiences. Co-produced by the Duplass brothers and starring actual trans performers, “Tangerine” could be the cross-subcultural odyssey to prove that Baker hasn’t gone soft since moving to Los Angeles.
One of the higher profile offerings of this year’s festival, queerly relevant or otherwise, is Michael Kelly’s debut feature “I Am Michael.” James Franco stars in the film as former gay activist Michael Glatze, who has since become a Christian pastor and denounced his former life. The film is based on an article called “My Ex-Gay Friend” written by Glatze’s former colleague, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, in which he writes that a “radical queer activist and a fundamentalist Christian aren’t always as different as they might seem…they’re ideologues who can railroad over nuance and claim a monopoly on the truth.”
The film is produced by queer cinema giant Gus van Sant and also features Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, and Daryl Hannah.
Pulp and Tomboys
A less conventional approach is taken in Jenni Olson’s “The Royal Road,” which is described by Sundance as centering around a “gender dysphoric, Midwestern tomboy who is drawn to borrowing masculine personas from Hollywood characters as a mode of understanding how to deal with being drawn to unavailable women.” Other poetic threads in this essay film appear to include musings on the colonial conquest of Mexico, urban Californian landscapes, a journey through Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and an appearance by writer Tony Kushner.
These cryptic descriptions apparently summarize a film that ultimately paints a portrait of social exclusion and of the use of cinema as a coping mechanism for those affected by it. Olson is a longtime writer, curator, and maker of queer films and “The Royal Road,” screening in Sundance’s New Frontier section, is certainly one of the big question marks that could prove to be one of the richer and more rewarding offerings in this year’s programming.
A documentary in the mix seems to play more like a pulp mystery novel than most of the fictional narratives being screened this year. “The Amina Profile” chronicles the apparent kidnapping of a popular lesbian Syrian blogger during the Arab Spring, which sparked worldwide viral outrage and a long, confusing journey of the woman with whom she had maintained a long distance relationship. I won’t spoil what happens next to those unfamiliar with the case, but it’s a stranger-than-fiction tale of modern day identity politics, social media activism, and what happens when those elements snowball into international incidents. Screening in the World Cinema Documentary section, it promises the thrill of a neonoir — but real.
Other portraits of cross-sectioning queerness in this year’s festival include a short film called “Followers,” in which an older churchgoing woman sees the face of Christ in a gay black man’s bulge at their local swimming class, and a special anniversary presentation of Jennie Livingston’s landmark 1991 documentary “Paris is Burning.”
25 years after the documentary premiered, “Burning” is essential viewing to any young gay viewer who thinks “vogueing” was created by Madonna, “kiki” started with The Scissor Sisters and “shade”/”reading”/”serving” and “realness” began with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” decades after the film’s Sundance premiere.
For anyone paying attention, the film will feel as relevant as ever and it will be a special moment to see it return to the festival that has unveiled films this valuable for so long.