By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
The Newport Beach Film Festival has said it's committed to expanding their gay feature and shorts content over the coming years, which is great, as long as they're still discriminating. That seems to be the case with half of their current lineup of shorts—some are nicely original and fun, others are nowhere near the quality they should be.Beauteous, directed/written/edited and produced by Giovanna Chesler is akin to a poor man's John Waters film, with heavy doses of bad poetry voiced over in a Bronx accent—ouch! It's a teen tale about a popular high school girl, Donatella, who decides to go to her prom alone and ends up leaving the shindig on a motorcycle with the "out" lesbian chick from her English class that she's been lusting after. Before this transitional event, however, Donatella joins a freaky youth Christian group, becomes a "born-again virgin" and dumps her boyfriend. It's never clear why this sequence is in the film, unless it's just a platform for Chesler to make fun of nutty fundamentalists, and it is nutty, but it's not very fun. The acting is mediocre, the production values pretty dreary, and there's not much heart or comedy to this juvenile "coming-out" tale. Alone, written and directed by Chapman University student Erin Benzenhoefer, is an equally sophomoric coming-out story, though a bit deeper, with much better dialogue and acting—yet still half-baked. Rachel Ann Owens gives a good performance as the teen who struggles with her crush on a cutie-pie gal pal, but her emotional monologues recounting how she almost blew the friendship after the girl sees a photographic shrine of herself in Owens' bedroom are bland and unaffecting. On a positive note, either of these teenage revelation shorts would make a great gay ABC After-School Special—only a closet teen would really get anything out of them. A Woman Reported—written by Kelly Hankin, directed by Chris J. Russo and starring Moira Kelly—is an enigma. As far as we can make out, Kelly parks her car near a hiking trail early one morning to, we guess, hike and calls her girlfriend to come meet her with coffee afterward—we think. Suddenly, Kelly is attacked by two young ruffians who call her a dyke. She scratches one of them and flees for her life. While running, she flashes on her girlfriend and also imagines herself escaping the attackers. Then we come back to Kelly facedown in the parking lot again, just where we left her before the first sequence of flashbacks, or flash forwards—whichever one it is, we just couldn't figure out. Then there's a newscast voice over during the credits of her attack being reported, no mention of racial slurs, and a following report that the president has met with world leaders to end global violence. Whaaaaa? The production values are high on this one and the directing good, with plenty of action, but we're still asking ourselves what the fuck happened, and that's not one of those "good" film questions to take with you. Gay Cops: Pride Behind the Badge, a documentary directed by Charley Lang, features interviews with gay and lesbian cops regarding their work environment and their feelings after Sept. 11. It's a good piece—with the exception of some crummy "smooth jazz" MIDI music—revealing perspectives and stories we seldom, if ever, get to witness. Compelling and original, it's a heartfelt inside look at gays who, by their very nature, must see themselves as role models and not victims. Beauteous, Alone, A Woman Reported and Gay Cops screen as part of the aptly titled "Queer Shorts for the Straight Festival" program, which also includes email express and The Nearly Unadventurous Life of Zoe Cadwaulder (not reviewed here). Fortunately, that's not all the gay cinema at this year's Newport, which also includes such feature-length offerings as Think Positive, Cowboys and Angels and Dragnuns in Tinsel Town (reviewed in Film Calendar).
But two films produced by the emerging, matriarchal Los Angeles networking group Power-Up turn out to be the hippest lesbian shorts in the queer lineup: Little Black Boot, which screens as part of the "For Shorts Sake!" program, and D.E.B.S., which joins "Shorts-Ploitation" along with Chapman graduate Marton Varo Jr.'s The Rules of the Game (not reviewed here).Boot, written by Cherien Dabis and directed by Colette Burson, is not so much a coming-out tale as it is a first-love tale wrapped around a lesbian Cinderella story. The striking Carmen Plumb is Cindy, a sweet, alienated, alternatively hip teen who lusts after popular chick Laurie, played by Dania Ramirez. Cindy is taunted by her beautiful popular sister and her very Orange County mother (Best in Show's resident lesbo, Jane Lynch) about being untrendy and uninvited to the prom. With help from her gay pal, Cindy does attend the prom—as a boy—and gets a hot dance and lip-lock with prom queen Laurie. Next comes the standard Cinderella fleeing from the ball with her glass slipper left behind, except this time it's a black combat boot. Laurie gets the boot and, eventually, the girl. The direction is smart, and the acting is top-notch. D.E.B.S., written/directed/edited by Angela Robinson, is a combination lesbian/Charlie's Angels/Powerpuff Girls spy spoof with snappy directing, hip music by Garbage and Get Smart one-liners. Four super-sexy, super-spy teens in Catholic school minis must repeatedly save one of the girls, "A," from the clutches of an evil, gorgeous vixen who is actually kidnapping A so they can have sex. There's plenty of gunplay and ditzy, girlie one-liners, and it fulfills the standard James Bond m.o. of the spy bedding the female villain—but this time the sex is actually hot and the villain gets to live. All we can say is: MORE!
The soul of the festival's gay-cinema offerings is found not in a short but Jim in Bold, a moving, feature-length documentary combining the life story of Pennsylvania youth Jim Wheeler with the fifth cross country road trip of Young Gay America, who search out LGBT teens in the U.S. heartland and record their positive stories of perseverance for publication on the YGA website.
The connection of Jim Wheeler to YGA is never literally clear, except in the beginning of the film when the three YGA young men discuss Wheeler's oppressive circumstances and take the road trip in his name. Throughout, the YGA boys read Wheeler's impressive poetry in voice over and on camera, but we never know if the YGA boys knew Wheeler, or if he contacted them on their website.
The teen excerpts by YGA are, indeed, uplifting, but it is Wheeler's tragic story that really captivates. Jim Wheeler was a highly talented teenager—his surreal paintings are truly phenomenal—who grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, brutally tormented throughout his teens with homophobic slurs. His story, told through interviews of his family and friends is sad and touching—and surprising. Unlike many gay teens who commit suicide, Wheeler actually had the support of his large family and some friends. After high school he was accepted to a prestigious art school and acquired a promising job at a Philadelphia art gallery. It seemed as if Wheeler had survived the high school nightmare many gay youth expire in. Still, Wheeler took his life and one of his friends may have the answer as to why when she says: "he was just too damaged by that point."
The juxtaposition of the YGA boys interviews of positive, strong, gay and lesbian youth to Wheeler's hopelessness makes his story all the more pitiable—even with a wealth of positive gay images in media these days, the effects of relentless homophobic abuse are severe, and not easily overcome.
Beauteous, Alone, A Woman Reported and Gay Cops screen as part of Queer Shorts For The Straight Festival on Sun., 6:30 p.m.; D.E.B.S. screens as part of Shorts-Ploitation on Mon., 4 p.m.; Little Black Boot screens as part of For Shorts Sake! on Thurs., April 22, 10:30 a.m. All three shorts programs are at Edwards Island Cinemas, Newport Beach.Jim In Bold screens on Sat., 3:30 p.m. at Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach. (949) 253-2880; newportbeachfilmfest.com. $5-$10.
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