Queer films at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival

The Philadelphia Film Festival opens Oct. 17 with a screening of “Just Mercy” and unspools at various locations throughout the city before closing Oct. 27 with a screening of “Knives Out.” In between are more than 100 features, shorts and documentaries, including several films with LGBTQ content. Below is a rundown of what to catch at this year’s fest.

One of the highlights is the Philadelphia premiere of “Adam,” director Rhys Ernst’s shrewd romantic comedy-drama about a lie that gets out of hand. The title character (Nicholas Alexander), is a cisgender, heterosexual and virginal 18-year-old man. Spending the summer of 2006 in New York City with his older, lesbian sister Casey (Margaret Qualley), Adam attends parties and rallies that expose him to a vibrant queer and trans world. It is at one event where Adam meets Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a lesbian to whom he is attracted. Adam does not initially correct Gillian when she assumes that he is transgender. As their relationship blossoms, however, Adam struggles with his deception — and things get complicated when they attend an S&M-themed party, or when Gillian wants to have sex with a strap-on. If “Adam” sounds like an insensitive comedy, out lesbian writer Ariel Schrag, adapting her novel, is quite clever in how she addresses issues of gender and sexuality. A pivotal scene has a news report of a transgender murder prompting a nuanced discussion about identity. Also, Gillian has an interesting and important backstory, as do other key supporting characters, such as Ethan (the scene-stealing Leo Sheng), one of Casey’s roommates who befriends Adam. “Adam” is a smart, enjoyable teen film for an aware crowd. 

The Philadelphia Film Festival gives audiences a sneak peek at the best lesbian film of the year, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Out director Céline Sciamma’s film is a stunning, slow-burn romantic drama set in the 1700s in France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint Héloïse (out actress Adèle Haenel) without the latter’s knowledge. As the two young women slowly get to know one another, a friendship develops. But their bond eventually becomes something more profound. When the two women finally kiss, it is electrifying. This sparse, elegant and seductive period drama has the women slowly and subtly revealing themselves to each other. Merlant is outstanding as Marianne, conveying her emotions and burgeoning desires, while Haenel gives a lovely performance as the enigmatic Héloïse. (Haenel also appears in “Deerskin” screening at the fest).

“Oh Mercy!,” is French director Arnaud Desplechin’s intriguing police procedural, set in his hometown of Roubaix. Yacoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), the chief of police, handles cases ranging from fraud to a missing girl to a serial rapist. When Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend Marie (Sara Forestier) provide information for an arson case, the lovers soon find themselves suspects in the related murder of an elderly woman. “Oh Mercy!” is quite engaging in its first half, but things slacken a bit once Claude and Marie are questioned. The investigation is interesting, but it lacks emotion and power, despite strong performances from the actors.

Another excellent French import is out gay director François Ozon’s riveting drama, “By the Grace of God,” about the church’s recent child abuse scandal in Lyon. The film chronicles the efforts of several victims of pedophile priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) to bring the situation to light and demand accountability from the Catholic church. Several stories unfold, starting with Alexandre (Melvin Poupaud), who takes a respectful approach to confronting the church and its hierarchy. He eventually files a complaint that sets a chain of events and disclosures in motion. François (Denis Ménochet) is one victim who goes to the media to inform the public and forms an association for other sufferers. One of the most moving stories is Emmanuel’s (Swann Arlaud), a young man who is still haunted by what happened to him as a child. The ripples the abuse has on the men, their families and loved ones is artfully handled as the victims seek justice, not revenge and hope to change the statute of limitations about such cases as men are encouraged — and find the courage — to speak out. This is an absorbing film made with considerable empathy and righteous anger. Ozon’s concerned approach never allows “By the Grace of God” to become too melodramatic or histrionic.

“Temblores (Tremors)” is an exquisite — and exquisitely made — Guatemalan drama by out gay filmmaker Jayro Bustamante. Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager), an upper-class, evangelical, married father of two, leaves his family for his lover, Francisco (Mauricio Armas). The ripples of his coming out create the tremors of the title as Pablo is cut off from his kids and brings shame on his family. How he negotiates his situation is compelling as Pablo learns the harsh lesson that he cannot have his family and his lover — society won’t allow it. “Tremors” is a quietly powerful film buoyed by Olyslager’s remarkable, internal performance. The film speaks volumes about how Latin American culture is ruled by religion and class issues, especially when it comes to homosexuality.

Although “And Then We Danced,” is a familiar coming out story, it is set in an unfamiliar place — Tbilisi. This engrossing drama concerns Merab (Levan Galbakhiani), a closeted young dancer in a Georgian National company who finds himself attracted to Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a replacement performer. At first, Merab is threatened by his rival — they are both competing for a position in the main ensemble — but soon they become friends, and, one fateful night, lovers. Writer/director Levan Akin allows Merab to express all his desires and emotions through dancing, be it in his seductive routine for Irakli one evening, or his visit to a nightclub with a gay stranger he meets. Galbakhiani’s performance as an actor and a dancer is fantastic, and his goofy smiling at the thought of Irakli is infectious. It compensates for Akin going through the expected motions of telling the heartfelt story of a young man’s sexual awakening while illustrating the difficulties of being gay in Georgia.

The festival also features two short films with queer content. The nifty and intense drama “Lockdown,” by Caroline Held and Logan George, concerns Marie (Allegra Leguizamo), a teenager with a crush on her best friend. “The Distance Between Us and the Sky” is a beautifully made drama about a young man (Yoko Ioannis Kotidis) who asks a handsome stranger (Nikos Zeginoglou) for some money at a gas station. As they converse and share a joint, the men form an intense connection that may lead somewhere. 

A few films in the festival are not available for preview but have queer talent in front of or behind the camera. “Cunningham” is a documentary, filmed in glorious 3-D, about the late gay dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. The Brazilian import “Invisible Life,” by out gay filmmaker Karim Aïnouz, tells a tale of two sisters. “Seberg” stars out actress Kristen Stewart as the controversial actress Jean Seberg. The festival also includes a screening of the late gay filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 film, “Romeo and Juliet.”


For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit http://filmadelphia.org/festival/.