By Sean Boelman
Based in New York City, NewFest is one of the leading LGBTQ film festivals. Due to current circumstances, the 32nd edition of the event was forced to go almost entirely virtual (with the exception of drive-in screenings of Ammonite and Uncle Frank), but they still presented some absolutely wonderful programming from diverse voices. We at disappointment media got the chance to check out some of the films playing at the festival, and here are some of our thoughts.
The thing that works so well about Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare’s Cicada is Fifer’s performance in the lead role. This story of two gay men struggling with romance in New York City is a pretty run-of-the-mill relationship drama, but the level of rawness and intensity that the script brings to these familiar ideas is pretty magnificent. Fifer’s chemistry with co-star Sheldon D. Brown (who also contributed to the story) lights up the screen, selling the love story very well. Ultimately, the film seems designed to be an acting showcase for the two leads, and in that regard, it succeeds completely.
Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie's Dead Aunt)
Offering an authentic and charming spin on familiar coming-of-age tropes, Monica Zanetti’s romantic comedy Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is the type of quirky, feel-good crowd-pleaser that seems destined to earn itself a cult following. Following a shy teenage girl who is trying to gather up the courage to ask her crush to the school dance when she receives a visit from the ghost of her dead aunt offering guidance, the beats here are mostly predictable, but there’s plenty enough humor and emotion in Zanetti’s script for it to be both an entertaining and a heartwarming watch.
The family comedy Gossamer Folds is one of those movies that is so wholesome and has such a good heart that one can’t help but find it cute despite its flaws. And this story about a young boy having his first encounter with the LGBTQ community has a solid amount of problems of its own, beginning with the way in which it presents trans issues from a predominantly cis perspective. Writer Bridget Flanery gets points for having mostly three-dimensional characters, but Lisa Donato’s filmmaking is a bit too sentimental for its own good. Great performances from Jackson Robert Scott and Alexandra Grey save the day, though.
Filmmaker Hong Khaou’s sophomore feature Monsoon may not have the most substantial of narratives, but it’s a restrained and gorgeous character study. Following a British-Vietnamese man who returns to his homeland for the first time in decades after the death of his parents, this is mostly a bunch of conversations and stray observations about grief and identity, but it’s a compelling watch nevertheless. In the lead role, Henry Golding is great, delivering a much more quiet yet still charismatic turn compared to those that burst him onto the scene. But the most valuable player is cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, whose picturesque photography of Vietnam gives the film much of its beauty.
Filmed during the pandemic, Ryan Spahn’s Nora Highland is probably the most unique selection in this year’s lineup. Exploring the casting issues involving LGBTQ characters on Broadway (and by extension, in Hollywood), the story is fascinating and deals with some important issues. The structure is divided into three acts, and the middle one, which stars Marin Ireland and Michael Hsu Rosen, is certainly the best and most impactful, but the first and final thirds each have some funny and thoughtful moments. Some of the stylistic quirks that Spahn adds to compensate for the unique shooting style don’t always land, but given what he had to work with, the film is a relative success.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson
Perhaps the single most important film that played as a part of this year’s NewFest lineup, Everybody Hates Chris co-creator Ali Leroi’s feature directorial debut The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is absolutely magnificent. Following an African-American teenager who gets stuck in a loop reliving his death at the hands of the police, this blend of teen angst drama with eerily timely commentary and the story of a kid trying to come into his sexual and racial identity is absolutely heartbreaking. Stanley Kalu’s script pulls no punches, making him a discovery waiting to happen.
A feature film edit of a New Zealander television series, Max Currie’s Rūrangi is undeniably well-intentioned, but it gets a bit too caught up in melodrama to be as thought-provoking as it should be. Following a trans activist who reluctantly returns to his hometown, the intention of the story to take a serial form is clear because there are multiple supporting characters with fully-developed and self-contained subplots. It’s a compelling story, and Elz Carrad is an extremely likable lead, but Currie can’t escape an overwhelmingly soapy feeling. It seems to have been designed for a television format and likely would have worked better in that setting as well.
A lot of travelogues tend to feel somewhat shallow and directionless, but that couldn’t be further from the case for Eytan Fox’s thoughtful drama Sublet. This story of a middle-aged travel writer visiting Tel Aviv who strikes up a relationship with his younger Israeli host may be straightforward and direct with its themes, but it still manages to have its full emotional impact. The two stars, John Benjamin Hickey and Niv Nissim, have great chemistry together, but also bring their own nuance to their respective roles. And of course, cinematography highlighting the beautiful streets of Tel Aviv is a highlight as expected.
The lower-profile of the two anxiety-inducing dramedies starring Rachel Sennott in this year’s lineup (the other being Shiva Baby), Tahara is an enormously ambitious film reinforcing the need for new and authentic voices in cinema. Following a teen girl who suspects that she is developing feelings for her longtime best friend after an awkward romantic encounter at a funeral, there’s a lot going on in this story, and not everything pays off because of how many ideas writer Jess Zeidman tries to juggle in less than an hour and twenty minutes, but Olivia Peace’s confident and stylish directing makes the film memorable regardless.
Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation
Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams are two of the most prolific American writers of all time, and that makes them true LGBTQ icons. Exploring their literary careers, sexuality, and shared friendship, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is a wonderful ode to them as artists and creators. Using predominantly archive materials and a surprisingly good voiceover narration from Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as Capote and Williams, respectively, Vreeland is able to capture the poeticism that made both writers’ work so groundbreaking while still providing a meaningful biography at the same time.
Two of Us
There has been a recent uptick in films lately depicting late-life LGBTQ romances, and it’s frankly pretty adorable. Fillipo Meneghetti may not reinvent the wheel with Two of Us, but for what it is, the film is satisfyingly charming and lovely. Admittedly, this story of two retirees sharing a secret love isn’t as funny nor as moving as one would hope, though its hour-and-a-half runtime still breezes by. Aided by wonderfully humanistic performances from Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa, Meneghetti delivers a romance that serves as a perfect reminder of how love conquers all and isn’t restricted by the boundaries of age.
Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’s thriller White Lie is one of the more challenging films that was in this year’s NewFest lineup, not because it deals with particularly weighty themes, but because it deals in moral ambiguity. Following a popular college student whose money-making and sympathy-gaining ruse begins to fall apart, it’s undeniable that the character here isn’t particularly likable, but there is still something oddly compelling about her story. A slow burn that builds its tension from the audience being in on the secret rather than trying to figure it out, this is a bit too layered to be mainstream, but is riveting nevertheless.
The 2020 NewFest Film Festival ran virtually from October 16-27.
The Snake Hole
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