LGBTQ features abound at Philadelphia Film Festival

“Summer of 85” Photo Courtesy of Music Box

The Philadelphia Film Festival will screen nearly 100 films October 23 to November 2. More than a dozen titles, including “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand, and the documentary “MLK/FBI,” will play at the Drive-in at the Navy Yard. Moviegoers can also stream more than 60 features and documentaries, including “Beethoven in Beijing” about the Philadelphia Orchestra, China and classical music, as well as two dozen short films on their laptops or in their living rooms. Here is a rundown of the LGBTQ films on offer this year.

“Ammonite” Photo Courtesy of NEON.

One of the festival’s Centerpiece films and Marquee screenings is the hotly anticipated period drama, “Ammonite,” by out gay director Francis Lee (“God’s Own Country”). In the British coastal town of Lyme Regis, in the 1840s, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) collects and sells fossils. She prefers them to people it seems. When the wealthy Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his melancholic wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) arrive in town, he pays Mary to study alongside her. He also asks Mary to care for Charlotte when he travels. She reluctantly agrees. Charlotte soon falls quite ill, prompting Mary to nurse her back to health. As the women spend more time together, even sharing a bed, they develop feelings for one another — an impulsive kiss leads to some rather explicit passions, and the vigorous sex scene enliven this slow-going romance. The film features lovely costumes, and there is a nice thorny exchange between Mary and her ex, Elizabeth (out actress Fiona Shaw), who cottons to Charlotte one evening. But the strength of this film, a romance novel in “Masterpiece Theater” guise, is Winslet’s gritty performance as the proud, stubborn Mary, and Ronan’s delicate turn as the sexually awakened Charlotte. 

No Ordinary Man,” is Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s fascinating, thoughtful documentary that investigates the impact and legacy of the late jazz musician Billy Tipton. Born female but presenting as male, Tipton has become a hero to the trans community. “No Ordinary Man” interviews trans actors, activists, and scholars to unpack issues of identity creation, passing and (in)visibility, as well as gender and sexuality. The interpretations of Tipton’s life and “trans narratives of deceit” are shrewdly explored as talk show segments and audio recordings featuring Tipton’s wife and his biographer, Diane Middlebrook, reveal attitudes and judgments about the jazz musician. But the strength of this documentary is not only in the telling of Tipton’s story, but also in how it acts as a springboard for the trans community to give voice to their stories of identification, visibility, and self-worth. 

The documentary “Marionette Land” is an affectional portrait of Robert Brock, artistic director and founder of the Lancaster Marionette Theatre. The openly gay Brock writes and performs all the material, from children’s productions of “The Wizard of Oz” to his grown-up show, “Divas and Dames,” where he sings and appears as Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, and others. Brock depends on his mother, Mary Lou, who lives with him above the theatre, to keep things going, but the slump in sales is not helped by the pandemic during the 30th anniversary season. Brock, who loves the spotlight, gets plenty of attention from director Alexander Monelli who provides a 90-minute showcase for the performer’s wit and candor.

“Summer of 85” Photo Courtesy of Music Box

The Philadelphia Film Festival offers viewers a sneak peek at the latest film by out gay writer/director François Ozon, “Summer of 85.” In a seaside community in Normandy, Alex (Félix Lefebvre), a baby-faced teen, narrates the story of his getting of wisdom/loss of innocence as David (Benjamin Voisin) saves him when his boat capsizes one afternoon. The two youths quickly become fast friends, spending as much time as they can together. Alex even takes a job in David’s family’s store. Things only seem to improve when the two youths begin a discrete romantic relationship. However, just as Alex is easily seduced by the handsome and charming David, he also becomes jealous. Ozon plays out the intense dynamics in this involving drama.

Two of Us,” director Filippo Meneghetti’s poignant drama was supposed to play qFLIX back in March, but moviegoers will finally get a chance to see this wonderful film now. Aging neighbors, Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) are secretly a couple. They have plans to move to Rome — where they first met — and “be who we want to be,” but Madeleine is reluctant to tell her adult children about the exact nature of their relationship. When an unforeseen snag occurs, separating the women, Nina lies in wait, contriving ways of (re)connecting with Madeline. Meneghetti, making his feature debut, shoots many scenes in close-up, and this intimacy showcases Sukowa’s deeply moving performance as a determined woman in love. Chevallier is heartbreaking expressing her emotions, sometimes just with her eyes. 

My Little Sister” is a compassionate drama about Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright who helps her gay twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) when he is being treated for cancer and requires a bone marrow transplant. Lisa brings Sven to Switzerland — where she lives with her husband Martin (Jens Albinus), and their two children — to recuperate. While Lisa and Sven hope he can return to the stage in Berlin, Lisa learns that Martin has being offered a job in Leysin, causing her marital woes. Things worsen after Sven has a sex and booze-filled night followed by health issues during an outing with Martin the next day. While it sounds like dreary melodrama, “My Little Sister” is buoyed by Hoss’ phenomenal performance as a woman determined to find a sense of purpose in her life. In support, Eidinger is empathetic as Sven. Their loving bond forms the backbone of this compelling film.

“Minyan,” by out gay filmmaker Eric Steel, is set in the tight-knit Russian Jewish community in 1986 Brooklyn. David (Samuel H. Levine) is a teenager who helps his grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin) move into a retirement home, where, Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann), two widowers who are now a discreet couple, live. David is also covertly exploring his own homosexuality, sneaking into a gay bar, and eventually becoming intimate with the sexy bartender (Alex Hurt). However, “Minyan” is less a coming out story and more a meandering drama that shows how David reconciles being both Jewish and gay. While the film boasts an impressive, internal performance by Levine, and strong support from the ensemble cast, the plotting is often elliptical, the pacing is slow, and the emotions arguably too subdued. “Minyan” will be a challenge for some viewers, but it does have an unerring sense of time and place and a feeling for the insular communities it depicts.

The mercurial title character of Pablo Larraín’s ambitious film, “Ema” (Mariana Di Girolamo), commands attention whether she is dancing to reggaeton or having sex. But this curious drama is not an easy watch. Ema is a dancer and her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is the director/choreographer of her troupe. They recently gave up their adopted child, Polo (Cristián Suárez), after he committed a violent act. Since Ema and Gastón mostly snipe at each other, she hires a lawyer, Raquel (Paola Giannini), to secure a divorce. Ema quickly becomes sexually involved with Raquel, but she also seduces Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), a firefighter who is also Raquel’s husband. Ema’s sexual conquests don’t stop there; she sleeps with various women in her dance troop, too. “Ema” eventually reveals the reason for the title character’s behavior, but many viewers may be turned off by Ema before the film delivers its emotional payoff. The dancing scenes, however, are fabulous. 

Another unlikable character is Katie (Kacey Rohl), a lesbian student in “White Lie,” a polarizing Canadian drama. Katie is lying about having terminal cancer in an effort to secure scholarship money. She initially generates sympathy, but can she sustain her ruse? Rohl gives a flinty performance, but viewers will either root for her to succeed or take issue with her and her despicable actions. Indifference is hard to imagine.

Cowboys” is a tender, heartfelt drama about a transgender preteen, Joe (Sasha Knight), whose father Troy (Steve Zahn) “kidnaps” his son to escape Joe’s not-so accepting mother (Jillian Bell). Their journey is the typical road trip with ups and downs — Troy is bipolar, the police are in pursuit — but the relationship between Joe and his supportive dad is affecting.

Two additional films with gay interest playing at the Philadelphia Film Festival were not available for preview. “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” has the title character (Steven Silver) reliving the day of his death over and over. While Agniezska Holland’s “Charlatan,” is a biopic about Jan Mikolasek (Ivan Trojan), a Czech healer in the 1950s, who becomes sexually involved with his assistant (Juraj Loj) during the height of the Communist era. 

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