The “coming out” film has been the cornerstone of queer cinema for at least a couple of decades. For all the progress the LGB… (sorry, I’ve lost track of how many letters are supposed to be attached to that alphabet soup) movement has made in shifting from the niche to the mainstream in that time, movies about these people haven’t changed much.
On the one hand, that makes sense. As much as homosexuality has become a relative norm in more progressive Western cities across the globe, the coming out process is still a chore for many, fraught with anxiety and occasional peril. Coming of age tales about heterosexual characters are popular because so much in them feels universal; their gay cousins, the “coming out of age” tales, have a similarly broad appeal within their respective demographic.
(Let me take this moment to state for the record that I’m not a fan of the “in the closet” metaphor, nor use of the word “out” in this context — they are relics of another time that still connote shame and secrecy. It’d be best to do away with this “hiding in the closet” comparison altogether. Unfortunately, there’s not really another accessible term for it at present.)
For numerous reasons, most of the best queer cinema still seems to be made abroad — Weekend, Blue Is The Warmest Color, the films of Pedro Almodovar and Xavier Dolan. The United States has produced only a handful of great gay films, particularly ones that are celebratory of different sexual orientations rather than punishing. Last year gave us two strong American dramas featuring LGBT characters that were uplifting, for a change — Carol and Tangerine. It might be a signal that filmmakers are finally able to tell gay stories outside of the “coming out of age” norm.Let us begin with Moonlight, one of the best-reviewed films of this year (or any year), and a major success so far at the box office, with the highest per-screen average opening of 2016. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the story is a triptych about a boy named Chiron, checking in with him at three distinct moments in his life, and examining how his relationships evolve with a few key figures. In the first segment, Chiron is known as “Little” (played by Alex Hibbert). We meet Little as he’s running away from some bullies from school, which is no anomaly. Being picked on will, unfortunately, be a major determinant in the direction of Chiron’s life.
Chiron is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who buys him some food and gives Little a place to crash for the night, thanks to the boy’s utter silence about where he lives or who might be waiting for him. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) takes a special liking to the boy, and from here on, this place will serve as Little’s home away from home. The reason this is necessary is that Little’ mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is somewhere in the early stages of a crack addiction. She loves her son, but she’s beginning to love her crack a little more, and she’s ill-equipped to deal with Little’s biggest problem, which is that he’s a gay black boy growing up in a tough neighborhood of Miami. We, like Paula, sense that things are going to get a lot worse for Little before they get better.I won’t go into detail about plot specifics after this point, because the joy in watching Moonlight is in how it skirts cliches in favor of more genuine, heartfelt surprises. We check back in with Little twice more, first as a high school student who demands he be called Chiron, instead of Little, here played by Ashton Sanders in a heartbreakingly perfect performance of teenage angst. The bullying has only grown worse, along with Paula’s addiction, and Chiron is now more acutely aware of how he’s “different from other boys.” All of what I’ve just written makes Moonlight sound like a more typical, predictable film than it is; certainly, it has the trappings of any other coming of age movie, as well as any other “coming out of age” movie, but it doesn’t dwell on them or over-dramatize that. It presents Chiron’s life matter-of-factly and highlights beauty and kindness as often as pain and squalor, if not more.
In the final segment, Chiron is once again known by a new name, this time played by Trevante Rhodes. All three actors who portray Chiron are stellar, as is every actor in this film. (The Best Supporting Actor category could be filled entirely by the cast of Moonlight.) The meat of the final chapter takes place in a Miami diner, depicting Chiron’s interaction with a cook named Kevin (André Holland). That’s all I’ll say. Following the second chapter’s dramatic conclusion, the first moments of this third section had me very concerned that Moonlight was going down the wrong path and becoming the crime story that it is always threatening to be on its fringes. It doesn’t. There’s a hint of menace throughout Moonlight, and there are ways in which it strikes. But what makes it so extraordinary is how it depicts the mundane and everyday, making them universal. Gay audiences will recognize what’s gay about the movie, black audiences will identify with what’s black about it — these things are specific and precise. But none of it is compartmentalized in such a way that it feels like we’re peeking into another world. As different as so much of it is from the experiences of the audience that’s watching it, Chiron’s life is relatable and totally accessible to us, his experiences universal. It is impossible to imagine anyone watching Moonlight and not recognizing themselves in Chiron at all three stages, despite how different his life may look on the surface.
Moonlight was written and directed by Barry Jenkins. It is his second feature, and it’s an extraordinary piece of work, standing up against the very best cinema of the 21st century. It draws inevitable comparison to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, my favorite film of 2014, mostly because of the ways it captures very specific moments and makes them feel so universal. Boyhood accomplished the amazing feat of using the same actor, growing up before our eyes over twelve years, while Moonlight recasts the role and makes more significant time-jumps along the way. But Boyhood was the tale of a straight white boy, a type we’re all incredibly familiar with seeing on the big screen. The fact that Jenkins can achieve the same effect with a gay black man is, in ways, even more impressive. For most of us, Boyhood was a movie about ordinary experiences we’re familiar with, rendered profound by the way they were captured and stitched together in cinema; Moonlight is about an experience far fewer of us are familiar with, but is equally universal anyway.Yes. I, like many reviewers, am falling into the particular pit of difficulty that is describing what’s so extraordinary about Moonlight. We don’t see enough great black films, and we don’t see enough great gay films, and we certainly don’t see enough that are both. There’s a danger in praising Moonlight that the film’s uniqueness is relegated to the surprise we feel at identifying with this impoverished black boy living in a bad neighborhood, as if we’d never before considered such a thing. And it is true that a part of what makes Moonlight so extraordinary is the way it shows us a world many of us are not privy to, and makes so much of it so relatable. But it’s more than that. Jenkins’ filmmaking is so immersive, it’s like crawling into these peoples’ skin. That’s an accomplishment outside of the film’s worthy subject matter.
For those who didn’t think Boyhood lives up to the hype (you’re wrong, but that’s an argument for another review), worry not — the comparison to Moonlight is only so apt; Moonlight doesn’t share Linklater’s frill-free observational filmmaking style, except in a couple of key scenes. Just as often, the cinematography calls attention to itself with lots of movement and colorful fantasy interludes. The filmmaking grounds us in Chiron’s point-of-view, whether he’s remembering his mother screaming at him in a particularly beautiful, heightened way, or visualizing his buddy’s bragged-about sexual conquest with a classmate. The filmmaking is attention-grabbing in appropriate moments and maturely subdued in others, which serves to keep us guessing. We never know if the next scene will be splashy or soulful, or maybe a mix of both. In every moment, Moonlight is more vibrant and alive than most movies even attempt to be.Though aspects of Boyhood certainly came to mind while I watched Moonlight, afterward there was another #1 film that lingered in my mind — Steve McQueen’s Shame, which featured Michael Fassbinder as a sex addict trying to make sense of his queasily complicated relationship with his sister. In most ways, they’re very different — Moonlight has some of the most moving and romantic sex scenes I’ve seen, and they don’t contain nudity or actual sex, while Shame‘s sex scenes are graphic and intentionally unappealing. But we are locked into Chiron’s point of view so immersively, just as we were in Brandon’s. Both men are secretive about their sexuality, for very differing reasons, and we must read their sphinx-like faces for clues as to what they’re feeling. These characters tell us next to nothing with words, but the filmmaking tells us everything.
An independent drama about a gay black man is unlikely to Oscars by the fistful, unless it’s as good as Moonlight is. Due to rapturous reception thus far, Moonlight is certainly a contender for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Picture nominations. (Of course, it’s too early to be sure how much competition it faces, though there are a handful of equally beloved films in the pipeline.) As mentioned in my review of Loving, Oscar buzz was heaped onto The Birth Of A Nation way too early, and it seems that didn’t pan out. But in a much quieter way, Moonlight may be even more revolutionary and monumental than Nate Parker’s slave drama, and it’s not impossible to imagine it walking away with a few Academy Awards in February. Last year’s other frontrunners for Best Picture, The Revenant and The Big Short, were divisive, while just about everyone could agree that Spotlight was solid. Praise for Moonlight is even more glowing; I have a hard time imagining why anyone wouldn’t like it (though as with any well-reviewed work, there’s sure to be a backlash). I have a very different film in mind as my prediction for Best Picture, but wouldn’t it be great if two films ending in –light took Best Picture two years in a row?On the other side of the spectrum, perhaps, is Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, in some ways as typical a “coming out of age” story as there is. Queer cinema certainly isn’t hurting for stories about cute middle-class white boys whose fathers disapprove of their sexual orientation, nor about gay teens with crushes on a comely “is he or isn’t he?” cock tease. Closet Monster checks all the boxes of your most basic “coming out of age” tale, but it has more in common with Moonlight than it may at first appear. Both films begin with a look back at the protagonist at an impressionable young age, experiencing something that will have a profound impact on the direction his life takes. Both have genuinely romantic moments that are peppered with the protagonist’s fantasies, with the threat of violence underlying everything.
Then again, only one of these movies has a talking hamster named after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that’s Closet Monster.
Buffy the Hamster is voiced by Isabella Rossellini, which is perhaps the most perfect voice casting possible — if it couldn’t be Sarah Michelle Gellar. (I do wonder if she was approached. I like to think she’d be up for it.) She enters young Oscar Madly’s life at a critical point, just as his parents are separating. Oscar is left with his father Peter (Aaron Abrams), who is mostly loving and attentive but also prone to explosive outbursts of anger. Then, one day, Oscar witnesses something truly grotesque, and is forever changed by the experience.
The film skips ahead roughly as far as Moonlight does between its first two chapter. As a teenager, Oscar has become an artist with a love of the macabre — notably, special effects makeup with a fantasy/horror element. (Perfect for a boy who named his hamster Buffy.) His best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) might have a little crush on him, but she isn’t deluding herself about Oscar’s attraction to guys. Peter is, though — believing Gemma is Oscar’s girlfriend and tacitly disapproving of his son’s gayer tendencies.
Oscar gets a rather butch job as a clerk at a hardware store, where he meets the handsome and enigmatic Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), who is European enough that it’s impossible to tell whether he’s gay, straight, or somewhere in the middle. By and large, the rest of the film follows a predictable path — Wilder and Oscar grow closer without any confirmation of Wilder’s sexuality; Peter is gradually clued in to Oscar’s orientation and does not take it terribly well; conflict threatens to wedge Gemma and Oscar apart.
On the other hand, though, Oscar continues to have dark fantasies about the terrible event he witnesses as a child. Violent images threaten a full embracing of his sexual identity at every turn, and we’re not sure how this will manifest with the growing external crises Oscar is facing. Buffy the hamster is along all the way to give Oscar her best rodent advice, but that may not be enough. Stephen Dunn’s writing and, in particular, his stylish direction elevate Closet Monster above most other “coming out of age” stories. The film certainly owes plenty to Dunn’s fellow Canuck, Xavier Dolan — especially Heartbeats, which features Aliocha Schneider’s very similar-looking brother in practically the same role. But Closet Monster has a darker edge than most of Dolan’s work, with a level of menace more reminiscent of Gregg Araki’s fantastic Mysterious Skin. It’s certainly an accomplished enough first feature to suggest that Stephen Dunn’s further work is something to consider.Which brings me to two other recently released films featuring gay protagonists, neither of which deals so heavily with coming out. The first (and superior of the two) is Other People, another first time feature, written and directed by Chris Kelly. Kelly is a head writer of Saturday Night Live, but Other People is a far cry from sketch comedy — the film centers on a comedy writer’s relationship with his terminally ill mother. Despite that grim premise, the film is a comedy, though a rather dark and humane one.
Other People stars Jesse Plemons as the son and Molly Shannon as the mother, both terrific. (The film may be too little-seen to garner serious Oscar buzz for Shannon, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.) After a major setback in his screenwriting career and a breakup with his boyfriend, David moves back to Sacramento to spend time with Joanne, who has probably only a matter of months to live while losing a nasty battle with cancer. David is visibly uncomfortable around his father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), who it turns out doesn’t really approve of his son’s sexual orientation. (Like I said, it’s a common theme in such movies.)
Other People contains a handful of tremendously sad scenes, but refuses to wallow in the misery of its subject matter. Mostly, it treats Joanne’s mortality as a matter of fact and continues to examine the fraught family dynamics, which would be interesting with or without the cancer. Some of the best scenes take place between David and his buddy Gabe (John Early), the two having heart-to-hearts about the cruelties of life and silver linings. (Plus some pretty fun gay stuff.) While some of the father-son dynamic veers further into melodrama than it probably should, most of Other People is refreshingly honest and free of the usual deathbed weepiness we expect from such a movie. It’s well worth a viewing.And then there’s King Cobra, the ostensibly true story of teenage porn star Brent Corrigan’s rise to internet infamy, leading to the murder of his mentor and benefactor, Stephen, played with real nuance by Christian Slater. Slater’s performance is worthy of a better movie and one of few redeemable aspects of King Cobra, which, like Moonlight, Other People, and Closet Monster, was written and directed by a largely unknown filmmaker, Justin Kelly. Garrett Clayton stars as Corrigan, and it’s a fine performance for an underwritten role, though it’s Keegan Allen who nails the right concoction of optimism, narcissism, and flat-out stupidity these characters really should display in a soapy thriller like King Cobra. James Franco, on the other hand, is in half-cocked Spring Breakers bonkers mode as the auteur behind a rival gay porno empire. We also get brief appearances by Molly Ringwald as Stephen’s concerned sister and Alicia Silverstone as Corrigan’s concerned mother. Both do well with what they’re given, but the stunt casting is missing the point.
King Cobra skips over any opportunity for character development, portraying Corrigan as a vapid but more or less well-meaning opportunist who lucks into his porn fame. He doesn’t really do anything in this story, to the extent that we have to wonder why he’s placed at the center of it, when everyone else on screen is more fascinating. Franco’s performance is a little unhinged and, throughout, the gay sex is as unconvincing as you’re likely to see anywhere, but the unhealthy dynamic between the “bad” porn stars gives us our only nibble of anything to chew on in King Cobra. What could have been a fascinating exploration of the power dynamics and sexual politics at play in such a sex-driven culture instead jumps from idea to idea, never landing on an overarching theme. It’d be fun if Corrigan was a manipulative minx in the style of To Die For‘s Suzanne Stone, or if the film examined the psychoses of 2000-era gay porn performers the way Paul Thomas Anderson did for their straight counterparts in the 1970s in Boogie Nights. Ultimately, King Cobra can’t decide what it’s about or even who it’s about — even the sex is surprisingly sterile, more Cinemax than cinema. Despite a few promising moments and Slater’s better-than-it-needed-to-be portrayal of the murder victim, King Cobra is unfortunately toothless in all the ways that count.
And just so we don’t end on a down note, I’ll mention one final recent release that, like the others, is the work of a singular writer/director, but this time is focused exclusively on heterosexuals. (Aww.) That would be Complete Unknown from filmmaker Joshua Marston, concerning a myserious dinner guest (Rachel Weisz) who arrives at the birthday party of a man named Tom (Michael Shannon). When Tom spots Alice, it’s quickly clear that he thinks he knows her; we’ve been privy to some of Alice’s previously sketchy behavior, so we think he just might. Alice is the “plus one” of Clyde (Michael Chernus), Tom’s business partner. The birthday party sequence unfolds deliberately slowly, fleshing out the supporting characters and gradually teasing out Complete Unknown‘s true game in a way that remind me of 2014’s low-key, talky sci-fi thriller Coherence.
As it turns out, Complete Unknown isn’t a science fiction story, but in a way it could be. Its opening moments show us Weisz in a number of scenarios that don’t seem to fit together. Are these meant to all be the same woman? Is this woman a secret agent? A time traveler? We don’t know. Ultimately, Complete Unknown settles down for a more straightforward story exploring Alice’s psyche, and how other characters react to the choices she’s made in her life. Alice is an unconventional woman, living life by her own terms against the rules that have been dictated from on high — some judge her harshly for that, others are more open-minded and even curious.
Many moviegoers can probably identify with Alice’s desire to live a life untethered to the past, but few have truly lived through this kind of redefinition. In this way, Complete Unknown feels like a film made specifically for me, leaving some viewers cold. Though I don’t expect too many people to react to it the same way, I found it riveting from start to finish. It may end up as one of my personal favorites of the year.