Monday 22 March 2021

DEoL Goes to FLARE 2021: Reviews of Rebel Dykes (UK/Estonia 2019), Sweetheart (UK 2021), The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (USA 2019), The Greenhouse (Australia 2021), Firebird (Estonia/UK 2021), Cowboys (USA 2020), Jump, Darling (Canada 2020), Cured (USA 2020) and Tove (Finland/Sweden 2020)

Your humble scribe is getting about a bit, albeit from the comfort of his own sofa. This year BFI's annual LGBTIQ+ Festival went online and in so doing delivered a strong line up.

Rebel Dykes (UK/Estonia 2019: Dir Harri Shanahan) As much a snapshot of gay London in the 1980s as about the shifting factions, tensions and celebrations within the various ideologies, Shanahan's documentary may have been light on authentic footage (the immediacy of events didn't really lend itself to lengthy visual records) but was made up for via a group of articulate, funny and heartlfelt interviewees that accurately situated the scene and its politics.

Commencing with the perhaps unlikely nexus of Greenham Common, where a map of the protesters' quandrants surrounding the base handily organised the women into sympathetic groups (and with the most popular area being the one closest to the pub), the documentary charts the emergence of the London club scene from bars like 'The Gateway' and 'Market Tavern' to the commencement of curated nights, organised by the nascent 'Rebel Dykes', who favoured a less passive (not to mention often highly erotic) alternative to the standard scene events. 

The intersection with punk, postpunk and art school was extremely important, and Rebel Dykes also covers the opposition experienced from groups of lesbians unhappy with the sometimes challenging stylings of the new queer scene, before everyone faced the rule of law and the infamous 'Clause 28' which, the documentary informs us, was law for a staggering 14 years. It's a fascinating watch, and provides a view of London which occupied the same time zone, if not the same spaces as other 'outsider' groups. Well worth a watch.

Sweetheart (UK 2021: Dir Marley Morrison) As the director suggests in the Q&A that followed the screening of her debut feature, holiday camps were and are a peculiarly working class institution. And the working class family at the centre of Sweetheart, headed for a much needed break, typify this. The camp for them isn't a 'staycation'; it's a holiday, and maybe the only one they'll get.

Mum Tina (Jo Hartley) has not long kicked out her drunken husband, and her older daughter Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) is heavily pregnant with her first child by anxious to please partner Steve (Samuel Anderson). But at the heart of this winning comedy drama is 17 year old April - AJ to her friends (Nell Barlow), and there aren't that many of them - who has recently come out to her family (clearly nervous around this news), and for whom a week cooped up in a chalet with everyone else is, round about now, her worst nightmare.

But a chance encounter with camp lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith) throws AJ's world into turmoil; she's instantly attracted to the employee - it's maybe the first time that she's felt this strongly about someone else - but is immediately worried that Isla is the type of girl who would naturally go with boys, and that her affections will be unreciprocated. But when Isla seems mutually attracted to AJ - whose tomboyish looks are in sharp contrast to the glamorous lifeguard - and immediately invites her to a party, a chain of events is set in train which will impact on the whole family and ensure that AJ never forgets this particular holiday.

Set in the real location of Freshwater Beach Park in Dorset, Sweetheart is a note perfect depiction of teenage misery leavened by a holiday romance, as well as an honest but ultimately redemptive story of a family coming to terms with change. Morrison wisely foregrounds AJ's lesbianism, rather than consigning her story to a narrative sidebar, and deals with the impact on the family of her coming out rather than the rather more oft travelled story of the coming out itself. An astonishing performance from newcomer Barlow as AJ, at war with herself, her family and an unjust world, is matched by Hartley's put upon Tina, a woman spinning a number of increasingly wobbly familial plates, and Smith's outwardly confident but inwardly confused Isla. 

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (USA 2019: Dir Ali LeRoi) Tunde (Steven Silver) is the son of wealthy Nigerian parents, now resident in California. When we first meet him, he has just come out to his parents; his mother is proud, his father more wary, not for reasons of objection, but more fear for Tunde's safety. Later that evening he drives to meet boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville) but on the way is pulled over by two cops, who escalate from low level racist taunts to full on harrasment, and then shoot him dead, believing that Tunde was reaching for a gun. Tunde wakes up, as if from a dream, and relives his last day over and over again.

Put any Groundhog Day thoughts out of your head on this one. Tunde's last day isn't relived identically, and unlike Bill Murray's Phil character in Harold Ramis' 1993 comedy; his learning through repetition isn't self improving, but more an increasing despair at how he is to be treated by the powers that be. The complexities of his relationship between Soren and their best friend Marley (Nicola Pletz) are explored from a number of different angles, as is Soren's difficulty in coming out (he and Tunde have a pact to tell their respective parents on what will be Tunde's last day). But this is really about the inescapability of fate for a black, gay man who refuses to be silent - and indeed it is only in silence that there is any hope of release.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is at times more than a little heavy handed, and its narrative twists don't all land, but I liked the way the movie styled itself almost as a shiny YA drama (complete with age appropriate soundtrack) and then proceeded to peel away the apparent superficiality. There's no denying the power of the piece, and Silver delivers a great performance as the increasingly trapped and angry Tunde. LeRoi has, it seems, largely successfully made the transition from TV to feature length movies with this debut.

The Greenhouse (Australia 2021: Dir Thomas Wilson-White) Beth Tweedy-Bell (Jane Watt) lives with her mother; she originally had two mothers ('the mums' as they were affectionately known) but one, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton) died several years previously. Her surviving mother, Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin) is preparing for her 60th birthday party, and the rest of the Tweedy-Bell's are headed back home to celebrate.

The family are still mired in grief, although Beth and Ruth seem hardest hit: Beth has remained in the house after Lillian's death, a request from her dying mother being to help Ruth. Beth is also dealing with her own sexuality; a relationship with a friend Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) broke down because of Beth's unwillingness to confront her own gayness. As the family return, one night Beth experiences something equally strange and profound; beyond the garden of the house exists a doorway to her past. She is able to silently observe happy family scenes before her brothers and sisters left home, an extended vision where Lillian is still alive. Ruth's fragile mental health sees her returning again and again to this dream land of memory, but the comfort of the extended vision draws her further and further away from her own personal crisis.

Wilson-White's debut feature is an intensely personal film that asks the audience to take a massive leap of faith in believing that Beth's encountered world of the past is more than the heightened memories of a grief stricken woman. The early scenes where she walks into a wall of smoke/cloud only to emerge in the greenhouse of her family house some years earlier reminded me of the 1972 dreamy timeslip children's movie The Amazing Mr Blunden. But whereas a more sci fi based telling of the story might have taken us down the 'fix the past and change the future' plot standby, Wilson-White's version has the alternative time as a MacGuffin for the triggering of memory and loss (maddeningly some of the laws of the alternate reality, evident in the film, remain unexplained).

Ultimately The Greenhouse is more sad than profound, but the ensemble playing of the extended family (a mix of natural and adopted members) is convincing, and the feeling of shared loss palpable. My other quibble is that the Beth role seemed very under-written, considering she is the glue that holds the story together. But this is a first feature, filmed in rather challenging circumstances, and I hope Wilson-White is able to make another film at some point.

Firebird (Estonia/UK 2021: Dir Peeter Rebane)
Based on a true story, Reban's debut feature is the tale of Sergey, carrying out his military service at an air force in Russian controlled Estonia during the 1970s. Life is hard but made easier by his friendship with others including Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and the fact that after his term of service he intends to pursue a career as an actor. However when fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) arrives at the base, for Sergey it's love at first sight, and it isn't long before Sergey's attraction is reciprocated. Unsurprisingly, same sex relationships under Russian rule in the 1970s could lead to extended prison sentences...or worse (the fact that these laws, once relaxed, have been reinstated in the country is recorded in the end credits).

The most remarkable aspect of Firebird is its narrative and temporal sweep; the film charts Sergey and Roman's difficult relationship path, and the characters who become involved in it, as well as the looming threat of conflict between east and west, in a way which few debut films have achieved. There is a confidence about Rebane's direction that co-ordinates the movie's different elements into a satisfying drama, from large crowd scenes to moments of intimacy. However, perhaps as a by-product of this, the threat of danger inherent in the soldiers' relationship seems to have become lost; it was almost as if Firebird was aiming not to offend, and the decision for the mixed nationality cast to speak in English further muted the drama of the piece, despite some strong performances (particularly from Pozharskaya and Zagorodnii). This is still a very fine movie and a very watchable one, but I could have done with more intensity and less grandeur.

Cowboys (USA 2020: Dir Anna Kerrigan)
 Troy (Steve Zahn) and his young transgender son Joe (played by Sasha Wright) are headed out on a roadtrip. Based in Montana (the movie was filmed in the state's Flathead National Park), they're aiming for Canada. But just as they're getting going, Troy's truck breaks down and, taking advantage of a friend, Bob (Gary Farmer), he and Joe trade the faulty vehicle for Bob's horse and resume their journey.

How Troy and Joe got to this position is told in a series of carefully arranged flashbacks, interspersed between the police's efforts to track the pair with the help of Troy's ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell). Troy and Sally's marriage, and eventual separation, was in greater part due to Troy's acute mental health issues, controlled by medication, and their child's emerging understanding that their daughter Josie identfied as a boy. Joe's version of what a boy should be has been fashioned largely on Troy, a dreamer who sees himself in the mould of a cowboy, and Troy's plaid wearing friends. Troy was the obvious choice for Joe to declare his identity to, and is supportive, in contrast to Sally whose dismissal of Joe's news is more likely because of concerns for her child as much as an inability to understand the position. "Who would choose to be a girl?" she asks, incredulously, at one point.

But when an incident involving Sally's brother lands Troy in prison, Sally uses the time to discourage Joe from seeing himself as a boy; Troy's release causes further tensions. "You messed her up!" she yells at her husband, from whom she in now separated, and shortly afterwards, he has kidnapped Joe on one of his access days. The pair's trek across country, initially a welcome adventure, becomes more problematic after Troy loses his medication and becomes increasingly manic.

This superb drama centres around three note perfect, complex performances from Zahn, Bell and above all Sasha Wright, whose confusion and determination frequently present him as the strongest and most capable character of the three of them. Setting the story in a rural community where gender roles remain unquestioned adds an extra layer to the story (although a final, redemptive scene offers an easier ride for Joe than maybe some other films would offer), and the wide expanses of the Montana countryside present a beautiful but desolate backdrop to events. This is a powerful yet subtle film which, as a debut feature, is incredibly imprressive.

Jump, Darling (Canada 2020: Dir Phil Connell)
 Connell's debut feature (and Flare is to be praised for the sheer number of first timer movies shown at the Festival) is a low key study of identity, loss and family. Thomas Duplessie plays Russell, who has just split up with his boyfriend Justin (Andrew Bushell), ostensibly because of artistic differences; Russell is an aspiring but unhappy actor making ends meet as a drag artist (going by the name of 'Fishy Falters'), resulting in him being drunk on the job in the bar in which he works and fleeing town. His problems may also have arisen, via an observation offered by his mother Ene (Linda Kash) when trying to track him down, that stuffy Justin was ashamed to admit his boyfriend's occupation in front of his well to do friends.

Russell heads for a place he feels will be safe; the house belonging to his grandmother Margaret (Cloris Leachman). Margaret is a stubborn, independent woman reaching the end of her life (it's quite difficult to separate out the character from the notoriously caustic actress, who sadly died not long after the film wrapped, aged 94) and with memory loss. Russell's plan is for a quick stopover, just long enough to acquire grandma's unused car and write himself a cheque. But something gets in the way of this - whether selfishness or a genuine wish to re-connect with Margaret - and he stays; instead he seeks out the only gay bar in the neighbourhood, and gets a job DJing and resuming his drag act, in which he finds confidence and freedom of expression. Russell's arrival has an energising effect on Margaret, and is a timely one because he's in the right place to help gran fight off his mother's plan to commit Margaret to a nursing home.

Little happens in Jump, Darling but that's ok; this is essentially a story of two people from different generations learning from each other, Margaret dealing with the sadness in her life which Russell helps her address, and her grandson picking up some life lessons in return. Many have described this as a 'feelgood' film and while its conclusion is optimistic the journey is at times sad and poignant, leavened by some exceptional dance scenes (real-life drag stars Fay Slift, Miss Fiercealicious and Canada’s 'Drag Race' contestant Tynomi Banks turn up; apparently they helped Duplessie get into character, and they were pretty successful as he's fabulous onstage) and a superb soundtrack.

Cured (USA 2020: Dir Patrick Sammon, Bennett Singer) If recent events in American history have taught us that bigotry is alive and well in the US of A, not least among the rank and file Trump voting Republican masses, this sobering documentary details exactly what happens when that oppressive narrow- mindeness is invested in a powerful US institution; in this case the American Psychiatric Associaton (APA).

Starting from the Freudian premise that homosexuality was a 'learned' behaviour rather than something that either 'is' or 'isn't', Cured begins with a selection of 1950s think pieces and tabloid speculation about the gay threat and the abnormality of homosexuality, attitudes unerwritten by the APA’s 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders', first published in 1952, which listed homosexuality as a 'sociopathic personality disturbance' in its first edition, and later as a 'sexual deviation' and 'non-psychotic mental disorder.' The by now infamous footage of Electro Shock Therapy being administed as a course of treatment for such patients is a shocking as the credence given to the psychiatrists at their conferences as they delivered paper after paper on the identification and treatment of gay men, lesbians and trans people, without a shred of empiric evidence.

And it's into this organisation that opposition was first voiced, courtesy of a group who took on the psychiatrists in the most public way possible; by taking the stage at their conventions and literally grabbing both the microphones, and later the headlines. Cured charts the slow, incremental fight to secure patronage of sympathetic shrinks (led by Dr John Freyer who initially addressed his opposers wearing a mask for anonymity), leading to the legal challenge to have 'homosexuality' removed from the list of mental disorders; that eventual victory resulted in millions of people being wiped off the list and, ironically, 'cured.'

Like all great stories about activism, the documentary concentrates on a handful of willful and tenacious protestors who acted as a small beacon of common sense in a sea of reactionary and oppressive pseudo science; their accounts are equally brave and good humoured, and the rise of activism behind and around them life affirming. Not only is this a well constructed documentary, it's also a timely one, if only that that some of the personalities involved are already no longer with us: Cured stands both as an important document and an engrossing slice of modern American history.

Tove (Finland/Sweden 2020: Dir Zaida Bergroth)
 It's impossible to overestimate the cultural impact that artist and writer Tove Jansson (who died nearly twenty years ago) had on her native Finland, so it's understandable why director Zaida Bergroth took a fairly careful approach in her depiction of one part of Jansson's life.

We are introduced to the artist (played by established stage actress Alma Pöysti) via the relationship with her father, the renowned sculptor Viktor Jansson (Robert EncKell) and his strong feelings about the childishness of her doodles (which of course would go on to form the Moomin family) and requirement for her to paint, not draw, and to produce landscapes rather than portraits. Tove's oscillation between the two artforms causes her great unhappiness, not to mention a life of near destitution. A relationship with aspiring politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanto Roney) suggests the possibility of future stability, but a suprise commission from an upper class client, actress and stage director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen) triggers her artistic and romantic future. As Bergroth depicts it, the relationship between the two women falters pretty quickly because of both the class difference and Vivica's infidelities, and the artist's fallback, getting married hurriedly to Atos who has himself divorced to be with Tove, is also short lived.

Tove's free spirit, captured during scenes of her dancing by herself with wild abandon, seems forever neutered when partnered with others. And indeed 'neutered' seems an appropriate word for the whole film. Tove looks gorgeous (I haven't seen a production design like it since Paul Thomas Anderson's 2017 movie Phantom Thread, with which it shares a similar artisitc/obesseive feel) but I'm not sure I learned much about the artist; it's almost as if Bergroth were politely hovering over the details of the artist's life, giving just enough to warrant casual interest but unwilling to dwell on any details. It's worth seeing for Pöysti's performance, but I could have done with a lot more rawness.

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