The Philadelphia Film Festival opens Oct. 19 with the Philadelphia premiere of “American Fiction” starring Jeffrey Wright as a writer who pens a scandalous book under a pseudonym to prove a point, and it closes ten days later with the premiere of Emerald Fennell’s delicious thriller “Saltburn” on Oct. 29. In between, there are more than 100 features, documentaries, and shorts from more than three dozen countries.
A dozen of this year’s selections are by, for, or about LGBTQ+ people. Some, like “Maestro” starring Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, and “Eileen,” a mystery about the friendship between two women (Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway), as well as the queer-themed “Robot Dreams” and “20,000 Species of Bees” were not available for preview. Here is a rundown of a handful of films to catch at this year’s fest.
“Break the Game” showcases Narcissa Wright, who first found fame in the online gaming community as Cosmo, a “speedrunner” who can complete the video game “The Legend of Zelda” in the fastest time possible. But when Cosmo comes out as trans, she encounters considerable transphobia from the online community. Holed up in her bedroom and interacting with her fans (and haters) on Twitch, she tries to reclaim fame by speedrunning the new game, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” “Break the Game” chronicles that effort, but director Jane M. Wagner is equally concerned with showcasing the streamer’s mental health crises. (The film was created using 3,000 hours of Wright’s live streams.) Wright shares painful moments of shame on camera, but she also finds a girlfriend, who provides love and support. “Break the Game” holds a mirror up to the gaming community to show both the damage and the benefits of a life lived online.
“Caterpillar” is a potent, and at times disturbing, documentary about Raymond David Taylor, a gay man in Miami, who elects to have implants that change the color of his eyes. Taylor has long felt insecure, and he believes this cosmetic surgery will allow him to change who he is as well as his outlook on life. He travels to India to take advantage of the company BrightOcular’s offer for free eye surgery in exchange for promotional posts and advertising. As he undergoes the procedure, Taylor has moments of skepticism, and he is warned of side effects. An error that occurs during the surgery is initially concerning to him, but after his eyes are changed, Taylor feels like he is getting a fresh start in life. He moves to New York to get away from his mother, with whom he has a difficult relationship, and he reconnects with his old friends. Taylor feels empowered as strangers on the street compliment his eyes, but something happens that forces him to reevaluate the procedure. Director Liza Mandelup chronicles Taylor’s highs and lows, (and eye surgery), as well as his emotionally draining visits with his mother. While Madelup is not uncritical of BrightOcular, the film shows how Taylor’s effort to gain the confidence he desires is less about transforming his appearance and more about learning to grow from within. The eyes are a terrific metaphor for how Taylor sees himself, and how others see him. “Caterpillar” is a tough film to sit through, but for interested viewers, it is worth a look.
“Fancy Dance” by director/co-writer Erica Tremblay, is an involving drama about Jax (Lily Gladstone), a lesbian on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation, who is caring for her teenage niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). Roki’s mother has been missing for a few weeks, and Jax has taken the search into her own hands given the FBI’s unhurried investigation. However, Child Protective Services have come to take Roki away; Jax is deemed an unfit guardian, given her criminal record. As Jax gets information on her sister — from her girlfriend Sapphire (Crystle Lightning), or Boo (Blayne Allen), whom she runs drugs for — Jax takes Roki on a road trip to follow the clues, getting deeper into trouble. Roki, meanwhile, is determined to attend a powwow where she and her mother perform annually. “Fancy Dance” can be didactic at times with characters overexplaining things, and the plotting is frequently contrived, but Gladstone is marvelous and flinty, and the film ends on a truly graceful note.
For its 30th anniversary, the celebrated 1992 film, “Farewell My Concubine,” has been restored in a 4K uncut version, with 20 additional minutes. This epic film traces more than 50 years (1924-1977) of the performing partnership of Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), who sing the concubine and king roles as part of the Peking Opera. Dieyi falls in love with his co-star — they share an implied kiss in one scene — but Xiaolou is not gay and marries Juxian (Gong Li), a sex worker. Soap operatics ensue, from Juxian’s pregnancy to Dieyi’s opium addiction and various betrayals. There are also political situations that cause both men to be arrested at different times. Sumptuously made, with fabulous costumes and exquisite opera performances, “Farewell My Concubine” demands to be seen on the big screen.
“It’s Only Life After All,” a documentary directed by Alexandria Bombach, is a lovefest to the band, Indigo Girls. The film showcases the out and outspoken acoustic singer/songwriters through interviews, a treasure trove of archival footage, concerts and more. Bombach recounts the backstory of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, meeting in high school and regrouping in college to perform together, playing clubs — where they got discovered — touring, and finding success in a sexist industry that does not promote lesbian singers. The film addresses their coming out and issues of gender dysphoria and homophobia, plus their grassroots and community-based activism for social justice causes. Bombach also includes sidebars on Amy’s temper, Emily’s alcoholism, as well as their families. Their reflections about their lives and career are thoughtful and heartfelt, and their words speak as much volume as their catchy music, which is featured throughout this intimate film.
“Monster” buries its queer content until its third (and strongest) act, because director Hirokazu Kore-eda, working from Yûji Sakamoto’s screenplay, tells the story of Minato (Kurokawa Soya) a pre-teen, from three different perspectives. The first chapter has Minato’s mother, Saori (Ando Sakura) concerned that her son is being abused in school by his teacher, Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita). She is frustrated in her efforts to get justice from the principal (Tanaka Yuko). The second chapter recounts Mr. Hori’s point of view, and it shows that much of what was said and assumed, are not necessarily the whole truth. There is talk that Minato was bullying his classmate, Yuri (Hiiragi Hinata). The third act of “Monster” reveals the secret friendship between the two young boys, who are processing their feelings for each other. As the film’s secrets and lies are revealed, the sensitively made “Monster” stirs emotions. So too, does the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s lovely final score.
The festival also offers moviegoers the opportunity to see “Rustin” before it is released in November. Buoyed by an outstanding performance by out gay Philly native Coleman Domingo, this galvanizing biopic shows out gay activist Bayard Rustin as the force of nature he was — with his boisterous laugh, blustery speeches, quick wit, and strong sense of self. Director George C. Wolfe’s emotional drama focuses mainly on Rustin’s efforts to organize the largest peaceful protest that was the 1963 March on Washington. The film shows Rustin’s fraught interactions with NAACP president Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), who are afraid of his influence; his friendship with Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen); and his romantic relationships with both Tom (Gus Halper) and Elias (Johnny Ramey), a married closeted man. “Rustin” is a moving story of fighting for social (and personal) freedoms, and the film eloquently shows the value of owning your power.
Closing out the fest is “Saltburn,” writer/director Emerald Fennell’s devious little drama about Oliver Quick (Barry Keogan) who befriends the dreamy Felix (Jacob Elordi) at Oxford. When Felix invites Oliver to stay at his family’s estate, Saltburn, for the summer, Felix’s gay cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) thinks Oliver has something either sexual or sinister — possibly both — in mind. It would spoil the film to say more, but this seductive film features plenty of homoeroticism.
The Philadelphia Film Festival will take place Oct. 19-29. Visit filmadelphia.org/festival for more information and a full schedule.