Toronto’s InsideOut Film Festival, a showcase for current LGBT cinema, featured several great queer coming-of-agers from around the world: Handsome Devil, A Date for Mad Mary, In Between, and God’s Own Country.
Queer Cinema is having a bit of a moment this year. Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country (InsideOut Film Festival’s opening night film) — two beautiful films about first love — were the talk of Sundance and Berlin. The best director award in both the world and US competitions at Sundance went to Queer films: Francis Lee for God’s Own Country and Eliza Hittman for Beach Rats. Of the world premieres at Berlin, the transgender dramas A Fantastic Woman and Close-Knit were among the highlights, and at Cannes, Robin Campillo’s beloved 120 Beats Per Minute even scored the Grand Prix.
Canadian queer cinema has been notably absent from this sudden burst in critical acclaim and mainstream interest. We had our moment in 2015, when Canada’s Top Ten included several queer stories: Stephen Dunn’s coming-out body horror film Closet Monster, Philippe Lesage’s dark coming-of-ager The Demons, and Andrew Cividino’s The Sleeping Giant. But no current Canadian film has joined the 2017 Queer cinema conversation. Perhaps this is why the lone Canadian fiction film at InsideOut, Sebastian, is a major disappointment, featuring extremely dull characters, bad dialogue, stilted performances, and boring sex that doesn’t serve much of a story purpose. At least the film feels very Canadian: Sebastian celebrates rather than obscures its setting, and even the cross-cultural romance between a Toronto native and an Argentine PhD student feels like the kind of story that is Toronto-specific.
Opening night film God’s Own Country
Fortunately, the international selection at the festival, with highlights from TIFF and Sundance, more than compensates for this Canadian flop. The best film to screen was the opening night film, God’s Own Country, which also picked up the Bill Sherwood Best First Feature Award. A beautiful romance that bypasses a coming-out narrative, God’s Own Country is the story of an emotionally closed off young man, Johnny (an exquisite Josh O’Connor), learning to love himself and a lover, and his life in the harsh English countryside. It’s been getting lots of press for its impressively hot sex scenes, yet the film hits its peaks with quieter domesticity: every time Johnny smiles, we smile with him. Here, seasoning someone’s pasta or softly uttering “faggot” are swoon-worthy romantic gestures.
Irish crowd-pleasers Handsome Devil and A Date for Mad Mary
Two of the festival’s biggest crowd-pleasers hail from Ireland: Handsome Devil and A Date for Mad Mary. Handsome Devil is the rare queer coming-of-ager about a friendship between two gay teenagers that doesn’t turn romantic. Although it adheres to many movie tropes, from the inspirational teacher to the pivotal school concert and final triumphant sport match, it breaks the mould, too. The film acknowledges that so much prejudice stems from people repeating other’s words and views rather than thinking for themselves, from an arbitrary need to separate the “us” and “them” rather than embracing how people contain multitudes.
A Date for Mad Mary, on the other hand, is part lesbian romance, part coming-of-ager about coming out and growing out of your friends. When Mary (Seána Kerslake) gets out of her short stint in prison, she finds her world has changed: her best friend is getting married and has moved on to new, heteronormative friendships with people she doesn’t see as fuck-ups. Mary’s coming out is about not just coming to terms with her sexuality, but also with who she is and who she wants around her. It’s through romance that she learns to love herself and find a way forward, away from her toxic friendships.
Coming-of-age in the Icelandic countryside in Heartstone
The Icelandic film Heartstone, shot by Rams cinematographer Starla Brandth Grøvlen, captures the gorgeous Icelandic countryside of a remote small town where everyone knows everyone’s business and conventional masculinity is the expectation. Þór and Kristján are best friends who do everything together. But things get complicated when Þór develops an interest in girls and Kristján becomes aware of his own attraction for his friend. The film is best in its depiction of how young people explore each other’s bodies, tentatively and in groups, and possibly before they’re all quite ready. Kristján claustrophobia in this judgmental town is never more palpable than when he takes a dive into the water so that he can scream silently. Unfortunately, the film grows very repetitive, and invests too much in Þór’s relatively uninteresting story rather than looking at Kristján’s more conflicted, complex narrative.
Female-directed In Between
Although Maysaloun Hamoud’s first feature, In Between, is only tangentially a “queer film” — one of the three protagonists is a lesbian trying to navigate her conservative muslim family —the film is a delight, and was one of the highlights of TIFF 2016. Set in Jerusalem, the film follows three Palestinian women flatmates who don’t quite fit into society. Leila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer, is the most modern, but she finds it near impossible to find a man who is open-minded enough to handle her. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a lesbian who is out among her friends, but her parents are still trying to set her up with a husband, which becomes particularly problematic when she falls in love. Noor (Shaden Kanboura) is the most conservative of the group, the only one to wear a hijab. She’s engaged to be married, but starts questioning her faith and culture when her fiancee commits a brutal act that she can’t even talk about without risking her own safety and future happiness. Together, these women support each other and help each other navigate the murky waters of being outsiders in another culture and emancipated feminists in a world that hasn’t quite caught up to their values.