By Dan Bayer
NewFest, the New York LGBTQ+ film festival, was founded in 1988 in direct response to the AIDS crisis. It thus feels somewhat appropriate that, in its 32nd year, the festival would respond to a public health crisis by going virtual, making most of its 120+ films available to stream nationwide. (The ones that weren’t screened at drive-in events around NYC.) Queer stories have never been this readily available before. Now, on the brink of a potentially devastating election, when we aren’t fully able to come together as a community because of a pandemic, seeing positive, even life-affirming queer stories feels even more necessary. Watching as many festival selections as I could from my apartment in Washington Heights, I felt more connected to my queer brothers and sisters, and even to people in general, than I have since the city went into lockdown in March.
The team at NewFest gathered a relatively strong slate of films and series for this year’s festival, and the programmers conducted Q&As with the team behind each of them, easily available in the NewFest app alongside each feature or program of shorts. The selections ran the gamut of starry Oscar hopefuls, documentaries about LGBTQ history, romantic comedies, high school coming-out stories, provocative foreign dramas, experimental art, and micro-indies filmed during the pandemic. There was truly something for every taste. And getting to sample it all made for an exciting and invigorating eleven days.
Attending a virtual film festival, as I discovered while covering this year’s TIFF in September, is in some ways just as daunting as attending an in-person festival. Sure, there isn’t the pressure of arriving to a screening with enough time to find a decent seat, nor the difficulty of choosing between two of your most-anticipated films that are only screening at the exact same time. Instead, there is the pressure of having a whole lot of films available to you at once, and only a certain amount of time in which to view them. Unlike TIFF, which tried to replicate the feel of the in-person festival by having groups of films premiere on a certain day and only available for 48 hours afterward, NewFest made nearly everything available on day one (each day had a new “Spotlight Feature” that wasn’t available until its premiere screening time on that day) and available to stream until the end of the festival (if you had a festival pass, as opposed to a ticket). Being your own festival programmer is kind of fun, but there are only so many hours in a day. And while it seems like it should be easier to see everything, in reality, it doesn’t quite play out that way. In the end, I managed to squeeze in twenty-one feature films, one web series, lots of Q&As, one special event, and three programs of short films over the course of the festival.
That one special event, by the way, was one of the best things I saw throughout the whole festival, and it is still available for you to stream on NewFest’s YouTube channel: An all-trans table read of queer classic “Brokeback Mountain.” Featuring Leo Sheng as Ennis, Brian Michael Smith as Jack, Jen Richards as Alma, and Alexandra Grey as Lureen, and “Disclosure” director Sam Feder narrating from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s Oscar-winning screenplay, this was a fantastic showcase for trans talent. While it didn’t really bring anything new to the screenplay to have it read by trans performers, that was kind of the point: Trans actors are just as capable of performing cis roles as cis actors are. Although there were a few moments of tech-problem jitters, the performers were so strong that it was still a moving experience.
Moving on to the actual films featured in this year’s NewFest, I was overjoyed that the Audience Award for Narrative Feature went to David Freyne’s “Dating Amber.” A sweet and sour story of two high school-aged Irish teens who decide to fake a relationship so their peers will stop teasing them for being gay, “Dating Amber” is a winner of a high school comedy. Lola Petticrew is a livewire as the politically minded lesbian Amber, and Fionn O’Shea walks a very tricky line as Eddie, who is so deeply closeted that he’s forcing himself to go to a military program upon graduating. Eddie’s state of mind reads as painfully real, and it’s a story that many gay people can relate to. The true magic of “Dating Amber” is in Freyne’s sharp script which is peppered with the sort of bitter one-liners that can only come from teenagers forced to hide their true selves. The twists and turns of Eddie and Amber’s friendship are enjoyable right up until the somewhat surprising end. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, and one of my favorites of the festival.
There were a couple of other high school-themed films, as well, both of which I enjoyed in different ways. Gil Baroni’s “Alice Júnior,” about a trans social media maven forced to move from the big city of Recife to a small conservative south in the south of Brazil, has tons of personality. Feeling at times like an Edgar Wright high school comedy, “Alice Júnior” is the kind of film every queer teen in every part of the world should have: an inclusive, touching, super-rewatchable film in which our queer heroes and their allies aren’t perfect, but do change at least some hearts and minds. Here’s hoping that big things are coming for lead Anne Celestino Mota, who is just a dynamo as Alice. Olivia Peace’s “Tahara” couldn’t be any more different from “Alice Júnior,” focusing as it does on a bunch of Jewish teens forced to attend a grief seminar following a classmate’s suicide. Madeline Grey DeFreece and Rachel Sennott (more on her later) are Carrie and Hannah, best friends who couldn’t be more different. Hannah’s self-centeredness leads to the two practicing kissing on each other, and when that unlocks something inside Carrie, their already shaky friendship gets even shakier. Jess Zeidman’s screenplay has a distinctive voice, and Peace’s direction matches it. I can’t wait to see what comes next for both of them.
The lead character of Eric Steel’s “Minyan” is also in high school, but it doesn’t feel much like a high school film. It’s 1980s Brooklyn, and when David’s grandmother dies, his grandfather needs to move to a new apartment. The building manager will only move him up the list if David moves in with him in order to complete the minyan required for the in-house Jewish congregation’s services. The film is about David navigating his sexuality and Russian Jewish heritage, but the real heart of the film is David’s growing relationship with two elderly men who live together in the new building. The film may be too low-key for its own good, but it is quietly heartbreaking. Not at all quiet is Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby,” one of my favorites from TIFF that I was thrilled to see again. “Tahara” star Rachel Sennott comes back to kiss girls at a Jewish mourning event and gives another fantastic performance as Danielle, a near-college graduate trying to navigate the tricky social interactions at a shiva for some distant relative. Seligman’s direction is sharp, her extremely quotable screenplay is given beautiful life by a flawless cast, and the score by Ariel Marx gives the whole affair a jittery energy that is relatable to anyone who has been forced to attend a family event where you keep getting asked about your weight and your future.
I didn’t love everything I saw at NewFest, though. The argument at the heart of Ryan Spahn’s “Nora Highland,” a filmed-in-quarantine adaptation of his play of the same name, is fascinatingly played by Marin Ireland and Michael Hsu Rosen, as a director and actor, respectively, who are trying to get him cast as the lead in her revival of a famous play with a gay lead. But at 75 minutes, the film feels like a short with delusions of grandeur, and the opening and closing scenes don’t have the emotional bite of the well-acted centerpiece scene. “If It Were Love” sounded like something that would be right up my alley: A documentary about the rehearsal and performance of a modern dance piece inspired by ‘90s rave culture, interspersed with scenes where the dancers talk about either their own experiences or the experiences of the characters they’re portraying in the piece. The film deliberately plays with that last bit, and while the whole thing feels like a documentary version of Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” without any actual drugs, it isn’t paced very well and left me bored despite the hypnotic pull of the dance. My least favorite film of the festival, though, was the inexplicable runner-up to the juried U.S. Narrative Feature award. “Cicada” does have moments of cinematographic beauty that would pull me into the narrative of two gay men overcoming their trauma by being in a relationship with each other, but then the resolutely uncharismatic leads would flatly deliver some poorly-written line of dialogue that would pull me right out of it.
Thankfully, “Cowboys,” the winner of the U.S. Narrative Feature award, was much better. The story of a young trans boy in rural Montana who runs away from his mother (Jillian Bell) with his ne’er-do-well father (Steve Zahn), is incredibly sensitive to trans issues. Young Sasha Knight is fantastic in the lead role, adding an unmistakable air of authenticity to the part. He also shares wonderful chemistry with Zahn, who gives the best performance of his career. Bell is also great, believably charting her character’s rocky path to acceptance. Anna Kerrigan’s film is in many ways a typical, well-made indie film, but shows a better understanding of trans youth than any other piece of film or television I’ve seen. Lisa Donato’s “Gossamer Folds” is similarly enjoyable and moving as it looks at the relationship between a young boy and his trans next door neighbor in the 1980s Kansas City suburbs. Alexandra Grey gives a tremendous performance as Gossamer, and Jackson Robert Scott gives one of the best youth performances of the year. Both of these films are honest tearjerkers, a pair of heartfelt crowd-pleasers that I hope gets to play in front of many more crowds.
One of my favorite things about having access to all these films over a week and a half was the time to sample some of NewFest’s plentiful documentary selections. The Audience Award winner, “Cured,” was a standout. It details the fight to get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the DSM, thus “curing” millions of Americans of a mental disorder in a single blow. That is all fascinating, but it’s the way the film positions this fight in the larger context of the gay liberation movement that really stuck with me. This was just one of many fronts on which that war was waged, and it hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it has deserved over the years. I also really appreciated the newly restored “BloodSisters,” about the lesbian BDSM scene in the mid-’90s. While the style of the film hasn’t aged very well (to say the least), what the film has to say about sexuality, identity, consent, and the need of LGBTQ people to create their own communities couldn’t be more current. I also viewed four biographical documentaries, each of which did right by their subjects: “Keith Haring: Street Art Boy” is just as slim and vibrant as Haring was; “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” is a hilarious and touching portrait of a late-in-life transition; “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” revels in Hines’s sense of showmanship; and “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” offers a full portrait of famed mid-century gay artists by using their own words.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the utterly fantastic programs of short films the NewFest programmers put together. I only watched three of them, but each offered numerous shorts that I enjoyed immensely and by a wildly diverse set of filmmakers that I hope we get to see more from. They ran the gamut from student films to ensemble pieces of recognizable TV stars, from a funny, heartfelt conversation between two Asian-American women discussing how they knew they were gay to a touching, sexually explicit goodbye from a trans man to his female breasts. Short films tend to get the shaft by awards watchers at film festivals, so I was extra excited that the format of this year’s festival allowed me to experience these programs.
Lastly, the three films that I cannot wait to watch again. Eytan Fox’s “Sublet” features a rare lead performance from John Benjamin Hickey as a travel writer for the New York Times subletting an apartment in Tel Aviv. His young filmmaker host Tomer (Niv Nissim) ends up serving as a sort of tour guide, and the two men end up fulfilling a need for each other that neither knew they needed. Nissim is a delight – and delightful to look at – and his chemistry with Hickey is just perfect, never quite tipping over into fully romantic/sexual vibes, but still present. Another pair with fantastic chemistry is Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy in “Breaking Fast.” While the film often feels like the indie gay romcoms of the ‘90s (and not in a good way), their chemistry sells the central romance, turning what could be cringe-worthy into something adorable. The film is genuinely invested in what it means to be a gay Muslim and the different forms that can take – and that alone makes it worth watching. But the chemistry between the leads and Amin El Gamal’s surprisingly layered take on the gay best friend trope elevate it into something that I’m sure will be considered a classic in gay circles in short order. The most visually stunning film I saw at the festival, by a considerable margin, was Daniel Nolasco’s “Dry Wind.” Imagine a Tom of Finland book as filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the look and feel of this film about a repressed Brazilian factory worker’s journey through his sexual fantasies. That practically every man in the film is hot to death would normally be enough for it to become a cult classic, but it is genuinely artful in how it goes about telling its too-slight-for-the-running-time story. The hypnotic pull of the images and score is so strong that I didn’t care about the length and pacing one bit, and I can’t wait to watch it again to see how it holds up and to… uh… more fully immerse myself in it.
NewFest 2020 ended up being a fantastic experience. Not everything was great, and I don’t think anything I saw will be up for any Oscars, but attending Newfest isn’t really about seeing Oscar contenders – it’s about supporting queer artists telling queer stories and finding new stories that speak to our experiences. It’s about community, something the programmers were especially conscious of this year as community spaces are essentially closed, and they did a fantastic job of building a virtual community at the festival. I’m so glad I got to experience it and hope that these films will all find distribution soon so that people around the world can experience them for themselves.
You can follow Dan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @dancindanonfilm