The 25th Philadelphia Film Festival unspools Oct. 20-30 at various Center City theaters. This year’s festival gives audiences a sneak peak of several films coming out this or early next year, as well as a chance to see some that likely won’t screen outside of the festival circuit. For queer moviegoers, there are a dozen-plus titles of interest.
“King Cobra” is gay filmmaker Justin Kelly’s juicy true-crime story set in the gay-porn world and partially in Luzerne, Pa. Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) is first seen auditioning for producer Stephen (Christian Slater) on a casting couch. He’s sexy and adorable and it’s clear Sean knows what Stephen wants — because he gives it to him. Stephen, in return, sets Sean up in his house, lavishing gifts on this young man renamed Brent Corrigan, whom he desires — and hopes to make the whole world desire. And before long, they do; Stephen’s videos of Sean sell like hotcakes. Rival porn producer Joe (James Franco) and his Viper video star/lover Harlow (Keegan Allen) want Brent’s value, seizing a chance when a scandal derails Brent’s career.
“King Cobra” wisely never judges the characters, presenting them as flawed, but humanizing them in the process. This is writer/director Justin Kelly’s strength, and he gets a fantastic turn from Slater as Stephen. A scene in which he explains why he desires young flesh is especially revealing. Clayton also impresses as the sexy Sean/Brent, making him appropriately charming, seductive and insouciant.
If folks miss “King Cobra” at the festival, it opens Oct. 28 at the Roxy.
The Philadelphia Film Festival also offers moviegoers their first chance to see “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary film adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
“Moonlight” shrewdly investigates what it means to be black and gay and in a world that revolves in and around drug culture. The film’s protagonist, Chiron, is seen at three periods in his life: as a 9-year-old nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); a teenager who goes by his given name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and then as an adult renamed Black (Trevante Rhodes).
Seeing the shy, confused child and the haunted teen transform into the adult Black, who still grapples with his sexuality and deciding who he is, is remarkable and revelatory. All three of the actors playing this one character are indelible in the role, relying on body language — since Chiron is often silent — to convey tremendous emotion and reveal so much about the character.
Another film with an African-American theme is director Raoul Peck’s rousing, provocative documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Both a tone poem and a clarion call, this urgent, cogent film features James Baldwin and is based on his writings (read by Samuel L. Jackson). Peck uses interviews, archival footage, film and television clips, as well as striking photographs, to reflect on the way African-Americans are oppressed in America. Baldwin considers school integration, the teachers and “heroes” he had in his youth, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the lives and murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to show how they impacted his own intellectual development and activism. Scenes of Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show” or lecturing at Cambridge feature his eloquent and blistering remarks about inequality and white privilege. There is also a section in the film addressing Baldwin being identified as a “dangerous individual” in the eyes of the FBI both for his writings and for being a homosexual.
Peck makes the expected connection to the Black Lives Matter movement in “I Am Not Your Negro,” showing images from Ferguson and of Trayvon Martin, and yet these illustrations only magnify the importance of Baldwin’s powerful, forceful words.
“Spa Night” is another highlight at this year’s festival. This quietly powerful drama, written and directed by Andrew Ahn, introduces David (Joe Seo) in a Korean spa in L.A., where he tells his father, Jin (Youn Ho Cho), “I can’t breathe.” The stifling hothouse atmosphere of both the spa and David’s family life is palpable throughout this intense, absorbing film.
“Spa Night” meticulously examines the expectations parents have for their children. When Jin loses the family restaurant, his wife, Soyoung (Haerry Kim), takes a waitressing job. David is pressured to go to college, and his poker face masks his discomfort and his sexual anxiety. When the shy, closeted David takes a job at the spa, and witnesses various naked male guests behaving inappropriately, his complicit behavior slowly moves him toward independence.
Ahn’s film benefits immensely from Seo’s extraordinary performance. The actor conveys pent-up emotion, shame and desire, with just the slightest expression and body language. “Spa Night” is a minor masterpiece. Don’t miss it.
“Being 17” is gay director André Téchiné’s sensitive, perceptive drama about two French youth in the Pyrenees grappling with same-sex desires. Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a good student who lives with his mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), the local doctor. His classmate Thomas (Corentin Fila) lives on a farm in the nearby mountains. The boys are often fighting each other in school. Eventually, they are forced to tolerate one another when Thomas comes to live with Damien and Marianne.
Téchiné scrutinizes his young characters as their anger masks their desire, and blossoms into what may be love. “Being 17” is leisurely paced and features an elliptical narrative, but this tender film is infused with a romantic sensibility that delicately captures the romance between these two tough teenagers. For folks who miss “Being 17,” it opens at the Ritz Nov. 11.
Also from France is “Staying Vertical,” gay filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s follow-up to his erotic hit “Stranger by the Lake.” However, this title was not available for preview.
“Frantz,” by gay French filmmaker François Ozon, is a bit of a departure for the enfante terrible in that it is a black and white costume drama, set in 1919 Germany. A remake of the Ernst Lubitsch drama “Broken Lullaby,” this handsome romantic melodrama has Anna (Paula Beer) mourning her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who was killed in the war. One day, she spies Adrien (Pierre Niney) at Frantz’s grave, and he soon reveals his relationship to the dead man. Could that homoerotic vibe (seen in flashbacks) between Adrien and Frantz be the connection? It would spoil some of the pleasures of “Frantz” to reveal more, but this well-acted and beautifully filmed period piece does challenge expectations. And that does not make it any less satisfying.
Another handsomely mounted period piece screening at the festival is “A Quiet Passion,” by gay filmmaker Terence Davies. This gorgeously lit biopic stars out actor Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson, and reams of the poet’s verse is spoken throughout this talky drama.
First seen at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she rebels against religion, Dickinson returns home, to Amherst, where she tells her father (Keith Carradine) that she wants to write (and publish) poetry. These are her initial expressions of independence, and throughout “A Quiet Passion,” Dickinson and her tart-tongued friend Vryling Buffam (a scene-stealing Catherine Bailey) take pains to assert themselves as they consider social mores and issues of love and marriage, religion and death, truth and experience.
Davies, who penned the screenplay, concentrates on episodic mini-dramas such as Emily’s arguments with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) over his extramarital affair, or her prolonged ill health. Despite the filmmaker’s noble efforts, “A Quiet Passion” is more stuffy than vibrant as a portrait, and Nixon is rather starchy as the poetess.
The American independent film “Blue Jay,” co-starring out actor Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass (who wrote the script), is an outstanding two-hander. Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Paulson) meet in a supermarket 20 years after they were high-school sweethearts. Their initially awkward conversation soon shifts into the old rhythms they had as youth, and the film crackles as these ex-lovers, who know each other well, reminisce in Jim’s late mother’s house. As some amusing role-playing segues into romantic dancing, the mood shifts to a more serious conversation that eventually packs a dramatic wallop.
“Blue Jay,” shot in lovely black and white, is a small, intimate and quietly powerful film. Moreover, the way Paulson delivers some of her speeches — like one about her love for greyhounds or a confession she makes to Jim about her present life — are wistful and heartbreaking.
Lastly, two lesbian features screening at the fest were unavailable for preview. “First Girl I Loved” is writer/director Kerem Sanga’s romantic drama about a high-school teen’s crush on a popular girl, and “The Handmaiden,” by celebrated South Korean director Chan-wook Park, is a stylish-looking adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” that has had tongues wagging since its debut at Cannes.
For more information about the Philadelphia Film Festival, visit http://filmadelphia.org/festival/.