Critics' Debate: The Year in Queer Film and TV (and Will Mike Pence See 'Moonlight'?)
Donald Trump's America may not have much to offer LGBT people, but there were several queer-themed movies and television series that dazzled in 2016, as THR's reviews editor Jon Frosch and critic David Rooney discuss.
Jon Frosch: David, last year we used this space to lambast Hollywood for being behind the times when it came to gay-themed films; as LGBT rights and acceptance in America rapidly gained ground, movies featuring queer characters still mostly felt square and stiflingly noble. But context is everything — and what a difference an election makes. We're going from Obama, our gay-friendliest POTUS yet, to Trump and Pence, who was a proponent of gay conversion therapy. Whereas Hollywood inevitably looked like it was lagging behind the pace of change represented by Obama's presidency, now it'll appear ahead of the curve; each minority-driven movie may register as subversive, or at least progressive, in Trump's America. So while it's tempting to cherish every such film as a victory — a sign that an open, diverse America is still alive and kicking despite the bigotry of the president-elect and many of his supporters — we also should keep holding Hollywood's feet to the fire: More than ever, we need film and TV to step it up in terms of representation of LGBT people. And in 2016, despite the annual dearth of studio offerings featuring gay or trans characters, there have been a number of queer-themed works to celebrate — including one that may be, for me, the best film of the year. Now that Pence has seen Hamilton, can we make him see Moonlight?
David Rooney: Good luck. This could be the last time you and I have this discussion, since next year we'll be in a conversion camp in Indiana with our eyelids clamped open, forced to watch Joanie Loves Chachi marathons. I’m with you on Moonlight, which has stayed with me more than any other film I saw this year. The balance of realism with poetry and a kind of elevated, spiritual state of grace is exquisite. But what I find most extraordinary is how writer-director Barry Jenkins assembles such an expansive portrait of one queer, black life blighted by poverty, drugs and homophobia, by focusing on three distinct chapters from that life. The fluidity among the sections — and the connective tissue among the actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) playing the character — make it an intensely moving exploration of manhood, race, identity and sexuality. Some of our colleagues have described Moonlight as “bleak,” and I disagree. I guess if you take into account its setting in the midst of the '80s crack epidemic in a poor Miami neighborhood and the fact that it deals with bullying and incarceration, the movie could be called grim. But I can't recall a more ultimately uplifting recent depiction of the difficult path to self-knowledge.
Frosch: Agreed. There's wrenching pain in Moonlight, and, as you say, realism, but little of the harshness or formal austerity that have at times made current European art cinema and its U.S. indie imitators tiresome. The film is alive with the sensuality of its Miami setting and of its central character's journey — from the swimming lesson Mahershala Ali's Juan gives young Chiron in the gently lapping sea; to teen Chiron's first gasp of sexual pleasure — more like a sigh of sexual relief, actually — with Kevin on the beach; to their reunion years later, a long, aching swoon of a sequence in which Chiron is a bit like Brokeback Mountain's stoic, ruined Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Kevin (Andre Holland) like the teasing, tender Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Though lily-white '60s Wyoming and the black south Florida neighborhood of Moonlight are worlds apart, these masterpieces both explore, in a larger sense, the prison of American masculinity in its various forms (from cowboy to thug). A last note on Moonlight: The scene where Juan explains to young Chiron what the word "faggot" means, why it's used and how it does or doesn't relate to the boy is so quietly stunning, and so un-preachy, that I wish it were shown in schools around the country.
Rooney: That, of course, is precisely the challenge for films like this: getting exposure beyond big-city art houses.
Frosch: Right. Will any film we mention here be seen in Middle America? In red states, Moonlight likely will screen in a college town or urban area with a large black population rather than an average suburban multiplex. As the election reconfirmed, the country is divided between liberals in "bubbles" and everyone else. But bubble-dwelling liberals won the popular vote! And minorities, including LGBT folks, have tolerated straight, white, conservative America for a while. Wouldn't it be good if these films reached those who — at the risk of sounding like a condescending "elite" — might benefit from them most?
Rooney: It's not condescending to say we benefit from looking beyond our own backyards; I'm hoping awards-season attention will help Moonlight reach the widest possible audience. I’d also like to throw another gay outsider movie, Spa Night, into the mix. Korean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn’s first feature isn’t on the same level as Moonlight in terms of craft, and it perhaps trades too willingly in ambiguity to have comparable emotional impact. But it resonated for me as another affecting study of a young gay man’s sexual awakening in a traditional — read: repressive — culture we don’t see explored onscreen often enough. If we are heading into a social climate in which hate and intolerance again become the new normal, then snapshots of the LGBT experience in immigrant communities are going to become increasingly meaningful. I’d much sooner see a Spa Night than something like Chris Kelly's forgettable Other People, which is sincere and nicely acted, but just confirmed for me that I never need to see another bittersweet indie about a mopey white gay guy (Jesse Plemons) whose mom (Molly Shannon) is dying.
Frosch: I liked Other People more than you did. Its mix of jokiness and sentiment is clumsy, but Plemons' scenes with his character's ex-boyfriend (Zach Woods) — including an authentically awkward bout of coitus — are filled with the kind of goofy, banal moments (Gays — they're just like us!) we see all too rarely between same-sex partners onscreen. Frankly, it's also nice to have a gay protagonist who's not cut like an Adonis. In contrast to Plemons' refreshing, regular-guy schlubbiness is a parade of pecs and abs in Justin Kelly's King Cobra, a shrill, shallow bit of true-crime titillation about gay porn star Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton). The film is almost — almost — redeemed by James Franco, as a porn producer, ruminating on the passage of time: "With a twink, you blink, and they're twunk." Hard not to love that line.
Rooney: I agree about the scenes between the Plemons character and his ex in Other People, which had much more texture than the vanilla-sad scenes with his family that dominate the movie. If we could digress from film, I found Tig Notaro's One Mississippi on Amazon a great example of the kind of story Other People tries, and fails, to tell. The show is wonderfully sour, funny and moving; it also illustrates how half-hour cable and streaming series have usurped some of the traditional territory of indie film by treating similar themes (in this case, death, family, loneliness) with much more room to play with tone. I like that in One Mississippi, Tig being a lesbian is part of the show's fabric, not a banner it needs to wave.
Frosch: Speaking of lesbians and the shortcomings of film, didn't this year's big-screen slate seem especially bereft of girls who like girls? Apart from The Intervention, a pleasant but minor ensemble indie featuring Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne as a couple, I don't remember any U.S. film with prominent lesbian characters. As usual, foreign cinema was a bit more fruitful in this regard. French filmmaker Catherine Corsini's Summertime was a solid slow-burn romance between a closeted farm girl (Izia Higelin) and a Parisian feminist (Cecile De France). Better yet was The Handmaiden, a kinky, visually lush '30s-set Sapphic thriller from South Korea's Park Chan-wook. The plot revolves around an heiress, her female servant and the con man who seeks to manipulate them. Aside from being a cleverly spun yarn, the movie plays like a stylish rebuke to predatory men who try to control women's bodies and brains — a big middle finger to "pussy grabbers" everywhere. While we're on the subject of 2016's queer foreign films, here's a shout-out to Andre Techine's wonderful Being 17, an emotionally vibrant drama about the erotic awakening of two teen boys in rural France. Like many Techine films, it explores fluid sexual identities with inspiring frankness and compassion.
Rooney: It also makes a poignant companion piece to Techine's other great film about gay teen desire, 1994's Wild Reeds. As for screen lesbians this year, nothing matched the haunting spell of the last chapter in Kelly Reichardt's triptych, Certain Women; the yearning of the Native American Montana ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) for Kristen Stewart's fledgling lawyer achieved heights of intimate portraiture that rarely translate from literature to film, and their shared horseback ride was no less swoony and gorgeous than Andre Holland putting “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox in Moonlight. But back to cable: There were so many rich LGBT storylines this year, like Andrew Rannells' Elijah putting his hedonism on hold for a stab at love with an Anderson Cooper-like media star (Corey Stoll) on Girls; the slyly observed subplot on Insecure about homophobia in the black community, in which Molly (Yvonne Orji) sabotages a relationship because of her boyfriend's long-ago gay experience; or the year's most devastating tragic gay love story, between Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Brook (Kimiko Glenn) on Orange Is the New Black. Then there were the fuller LGBT narratives like Transparent. The pathos of Jeffrey Tambor's Maura taking steps toward gender confirmation surgery only to be declared medically ineligible was just one gorgeous arc in a season that yielded probing new insights into all the main characters.
Frosch: I love every show you mentioned, and it's indisputable at this point that TV is bolder and more inclusive than film in telling queer stories. One of my favorites this year was Looking: The Movie, Andrew Haigh's feature-length finale to the gorgeous HBO series about gay men in San Francisco. Another was BBC America's sexy, disturbing, addictive miniseries London Spy, with Ben Whishaw as an English party boy who learns that his beau (who turns up dead early on) wasn't who he said he was. It's both an espionage tale and a moving gay romance told mostly in flashback and complicated — as gay romances can be in both art and life — by shame and secrecy. But like the best queer-themed cinema and TV, it grapples with universal themes: love, loss, the countless unsolvable mysteries of the human heart and mind. On the network side, season two of ABC's American Crime wrung gripping drama from a story of bullying, sexual confusion and gay self-loathing at an Indiana high school. As the 17-year-old protagonist, Connor Jessup gave a star-making turn; he has a similar tremulous intensity to Kristen Stewart — high praise in both our books, I know.
Rooney: London Spy indeed was some of the year's most enthralling TV, so smart in its assembly of a contemporary espionage frame around a gay love story with echoes of Vertigo — the idealized partner who remains unknowable, even in death. Great acting, not just from the brilliant Whishaw, but from Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and the terribly hot Edward Holcroft. It's worth noting this was made for and broadcast domestically on BBC 2, steamy gay sex scenes and all. Our public broadcaster and networks are timid by comparison. But back to reality: What are you wearing to conversion camp?
THREE LGBT-THEMED PROJECTS TO WATCH
When We Rise
Written by Dustin Lance Black, ABC's miniseries about the gay rights movement (starring Mary-Louise Parker and Guy Pearce) airs in February.
Ellen Page stars as the daughter of a man on death row, and Kate Mara plays the woman from the political opposition with whom she falls in love in Tali Shalom Ezer's drama. The film has wrapped but is without distribution.
Sebastian Lelio's film, adapted from Naomi Alderman's novel and set to shoot in 2017, will star Rachel Weisz as an Orthodox Jewish woman who rekindles an old passion with a friend (Rachel McAdams).
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.