Sundance 2012: LGBT Films that Made Their Mark

The Sundance Film Festival has come and gone for another year, and premiered much of what will be considered the best LGBT-inclusive cinema rolling out over the months to follow.  Last year's festivals saw the premieres of films like Pariah, Becoming Chaz, Circumstance, Gun Hill Road, and We Were Here, and it will be equally exciting to see which films from this year's crop go on to wider acclaim. 

In truth, we never know which films may go on to strike a cultural nerve, which is part of what makes Sundance so exciting.  Just a couple years ago, The Kids Are All Right premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before going on to become a box office hit, multiple Oscar nominee, and spark dialogue about LGBT families from theater lobbies to the national media.  

This year, it could be Love Free or Die that goes on to lead Church goers to reexamine old prejudices as Bishop Robinson himself does in the film, or Keep the Lights On that could lead audiences to question the substance abuse of a friend or loved one.  What we do know is that films have power to dig out truths, shape the way we view the world, and ultimately changes hearts and minds.  For this reason, the world of independent cinema is one worth paying attention too, and it’s hard to find a more daring and intelligent group of films than those that make their debut every year at Sundance.

A few films distinguished themselves from the pack this weekend, when Sundance announced the winners of both its jury and audience prizes.  Kirby Dick’s film The Invisible War, which examines the epidemic of unreported rapes within military ranks of both female and male soldiers, won the Documentary Audience Award after a week of grabbing buzz at the fest.  The World Cinema Dramatic Screenwriting Award went to Marialy Rivas and her co-writers for Young and Wild, which follows a bisexual teenager caught between two lovers (of different genders) and an extremely religious family life.  And the World Cinema Cinematography Award for dramatic film went to David Raedeker for his work on the gay-inclusive film My Brother the Devil, about the relationship between two middle-eastern brothers providing for their family through not-so-legal means.

Most notably the documentary feature Love Free or Die received a Special Jury Prize for its stirring pulling portrayal of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and the opposition and hurdles he faced after being elected Bishop of New Hampshire.  In addition to a holding a panel discussion around the film at Sundance, GLAAD has announced it will work with director Macky Alston to help launch the “Friends and Family Plan” to take the film and its message out to a wider audience.

Though Love Free or Die may end up taking a different path, several festival films already have distribution deals in place to bring them to theaters, while a number of other remain up for grabs.  GLAAD had the opportunity to screen a number of LGBT-inclusive films at the festival, and looks forward to seeing all of them enjoying a longer life in the coming year.  Here are our thoughts.

For a Good Time Call – From writers Lauren Miller (who also stars) and Katie Anne Naylon, this film was directed by out filmmaker Jamie Travis, and follows the blossoming friendship between two former college nemeses who end up roommates and eventual business partners in a phone sex line.  The hilarious and ultimately touching film got an enthusiastic audience response at its screenings, as did Justin Long’s largely improvised performance as the gay friend who brings the girls together, which was partly based on his impression of the film’s director.  Look for Focus Features to bring For a Good Time Call to theaters later this year. 

How to Survive a Plague - David France’s powerful documentary examines the rise of HIV/AIDS advocacy groups ACT UP and TAG in response to inaction from the medical and political establishments in epidemic’s wake during the 1980’s and 90’s.  Weaving together archival footage and personal testimonials from the people on the protests’ front lines, How to Survive a Plague carefully balances micro and macro views of the crisis to tremendous effect, and features one of the most moving final acts you’re likely to see in a documentary.  Anyone who was a fan of last year’s devastating We Were Here will definitely want to catch this film as well, as both do a remarkable job of illustrating a crucial chapter in LGBT and American history and are very nearly companion pieces. The film has already secured distribution through Sundance Selects. 

Keep the Lights On – Many people noted similarities between director and co-writer Ira Sach’s semi-autobiographical Keep the Lights On and last year’s critically adored gay indie romance Weekend in their matter-of-fact but stirring depictions of gay relationships, but Sach’s film definitely has the more ambitious scope.  Following a nearly decade long relationship between two men in New York, this film watches their innocent early days grow more complicated as filmmaker Erik strives to hide his partner Paul’s drug use and increasingly erratic behavior from his friends and family.  It’s a deeply personal story that also unapologetically addresses issues of contemporary gay identity, and definitely one of the best films of its kind to come along in many years. 

Love Free or Die – As noted before, the Sundance jury saw fit to award this film a Special Jury Prize, and anyone who’s seen it will understand why.  For a film that could have focused exclusively on church politics and procedures, Love Free or Die is actually a terrifically engaging portrait of Gene Robinson and the impassioned responses his election to Bishop inspired in both supporters and detractors.  Punctuated by humor, touching familial depictions and unexpectedly gut-wrenching scenes of conflict within the faith community, the film’s greatest asset is Robinson himself, who remains a terrifically inspiring figure and speaker.  You can learn more about Macky Alston’s roll out plan for the film here.

Mosquita Y Mari – A true success story of filmmaking through community support, Aurora Guerrero’s film about two Chicana high school girls in Los Angeles and the romantic friendship that develops between them was almost entirely funded through online means.  The coming of age story she tells is one that many people will be able to see themselves in, regardless of their backgrounds. While it’s unfortunate but not surprising that she needed to employ other means than a studio or major investors to get the story made, hopefully this film will make it easier for more films like this to be produced.   Mosquita y Mari is more than just a triumph of fundraising, it’s also a touching and very contemporary tale that many LGBT teens will relate to.

My Best Day – This film is almost as much a portrait of a small town as it is of the quirky residents who inhabit it.  Writer/director Erin Greenwell tells the story of a young woman looking for the father she never knew through the humorous and often very touching interactions of a motley crew of characters, including a handful of gay and bisexual ones.  Like a number of films at the festival, My Best Day also greatly benefitted from online fundraising, which has proven to be a vital tool for LGBT filmmakers looking to get their films made without compromising their content or vision.  Greenwell herself participated in a GLAAD panel on this method of fundraising during the festival.

The Thing – Writer/Director Rhys Ernst not only funded his film through social media, but he cast it as well.  This short follows a young transgender man, his girlfriend, and their cat as they drive through the American Midwest looking for a mysterious tourist trap known as “The Thing.”  Both leads give solid performances as the intriguing story veers between the pressures of having to administer hormone injections and use public restrooms to the anxiety the couple feels over their deteriorating relationship.

Young and Wild – Certainly one of the festival’s most distinctive films, Marialy Rivas directed this story of a sexually adventurous  teenage girl in Santiago, Chile who recounts her exploits in an online blog while trying to hide it from her strictly religious mother and family.  Life becomes more complicated than even she is ready for however, when she falls for a man and a woman who both work with her at a Christian TV station.  Intercutting sometimes shockingly explicit moments with longer passages of more subtle drama, the film’s content and very distinctive visual style produced strong reactions in viewers, many of whom considered it one of the best films of the festival.

Your Sister’s Sister – Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt headline this charming dramedy about a pair of sisters whose relationship is tested when one has a drunken one-night-stand with the male best friend of the other, despite the fact that she identifies as a lesbian.  While that would be a potentially incendiary plot point for many LGBT viewers, the explanation turns out to be somewhat surprising, and leads to an ending that the audience we viewed the film with found highly satisfying.   The film is funny, genuine, and wonderfully acted by all three leads.