LGBTQ films at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival

“Sublet” directed by Eytan Fox

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, which runs in November and will be available online this year, offers four LGBT films and one gay-friendly documentary this year. Most films are restricted to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware, and films are available for a 48-hour period after the designated start time.

November 8 at 7:00 pm, is the Philadelphia premiere of out gay filmmaker Eytan Fox’s poignant new film, “Sublet.” Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) is a New York Times travel writer who arrives in Tel Aviv on assignment “to write about the city as it is.” He sublets an apartment from Tomer (Niv Nissim), a student who makes “artistic horror” films. As Michael settles in to soak up the city, he allows Tomer to stay and act as his guide. As they come to know each other over five days, the very different men exchange impassioned thoughts about monogamy (Michael appreciates it, Tomer resists it); musicals (Michael loves them, Tomer loathes them); and even attitudes about Germany (Michael reflects on the history, whereas Tomer sees a new opportunity). But “Sublet” is best when Michael gets out of his comfort zone. This happens a few times, but he is most affecting during a meal at a Kibbutz with Tomer’s mother (Miki Kam). Hickey gives a wonderfully understated performance, while screen newcomer Niv Nissim exudes charisma. [Full Disclosure: I will be moderating a post-screening discussion with both Fox and Hickey online, November 9 at 12 noon.]

Another film from Israel, “Transkids,” (November 17, 5:00 pm) is a sensitive, observational documentary, culled from a 5-part miniseries, about four trans teenagers. Romy wants to be in the entertainment industry and is seen competing in a beauty pageant where concerns are raised about her sharing a dressing room with the other girls. Liron is first seen in the process of preserving eggs before having surgery. Ofri is anxious to have top surgery. Meanwhile, Noam takes his family to a gay pride parade. Other issues also arise for these youth. Romy and her mother work at getting her name changed on her passport. Noam tells his Rabbi that he has been more religious after coming out as trans. The film also depicts how each teenager confronts their compulsory military service, which can be complicated given their gender. “Transkids” is valuable for showing the emotional strains these youths experience, but it also wisely focuses on their supportive parents, who are often seen fighting for their children’s rights and supporting and struggling with them. This documentary shows the inspiring pride and resilience of these trans teenagers.

Two American films showcase the Festival’s Rising Star, Rachel Sennott. “Tahara,” (November 12 at 8:00 pm) is named for the Jewish ritual of washing and purifying a body after death. This sparse drama unfolds almost entirely in a synagogue during a service for Samantha, a teenager who committed suicide. Her classmates, Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Sennott), are best friends who attend the service and grief talkback, despite not being particularly close to Samantha. Hannah, who was allegedly hit on by Samantha, is crushed on Tristan (Daniel Taveras). When Hannah asks Carrie to practice kissing with the closeted Carrie, post-kiss weirdness develops. “Tahara” aims to address the difficulties these teens have articulating their true feelings, but the mini-dramas ultimately fail to illuminate the larger themes of identity, loss, truth, and purification. 

Better is “Shiva Baby,” (November 19 at 8:00 pm), where the bisexual Danielle (Rachel Sennott), arrives at a Shiva only to face a series of horrific encounters that make her envy the deceased. First, she is constantly questioned about her weight, her lack of a boyfriend, and her lack of a job or even a post-graduation plan. Then she encounters Maya (Molly Gordon), her former girlfriend — they went to the prom together in high school — who sees through the lies Danielle tells. If that wasn’t bad enough, Max (Danny Deferrari), whom Danielle had sex with that morning for money, arrives. Things only get worse when Max’s wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their 18-month-old baby walk in. (“Who brings a baby to a Shiva?,” someone asks in an example of the film’s humor).

To keep the tone unsettling, writer/director Emma Seligman employs music that is right out of a horror film. As Danielle’s mom, Polly Draper, delivers some amusing one-liners, but most of the tension in the film stems from Danielle struggling to extricate herself from her bad situations. It is almost a relief when she leaves the claustrophobic house and steals a kiss from the affectionate and perceptive Maya. It is hard not to feel for Danielle, but she is her own worst enemy. 

Another film that should be of interest to queer moviegoers is the documentary, “On Broadway,” (November 10, 5:00 pm) which chronicles the history of Jews in theatre, and features Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and actors including Ian McKellen, Christine Baranski, and James Corden, among others. 

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