The Birthday

Stick to the documentaries. Even though Reel Affirmations, the area’s annual gay and lesbian film festival, turns 18 this year, too often GLBT cinema feels like it’s still in its infancy: The comedies are broad, the dramas are overwrought, and in general the genre can make even the cheesiest and most contrived of heterosexual Hollywood look like Oscar contenders. Not to mention that every plot turn tends to be accompanied by a healthy dose of softcore porn. Well, softcore if you’re lucky—there’s nothing quite like watching, say, a gay zombie movie (Otto, or Up With Dead People) and suddenly coming face-to-dick with explicit penetration.

But true stories about the gay community are naturally compelling, whether they focus on the devastating effects of anti-marriage laws (In Sickness and in Health), the reaction of parents when their sons and daughters come out (Anyone and Everyone), or a good ol’ profile on a former adult film star (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon). As those documentaries prove, in the proper hands days-in-a-life peeks make terrific films. Seems like those in charge know this, too, considering that a quarter of the festival’s 100-plus selections are docs.

To be fair, budget constraints meant we could review only 10 Reel Affirmations offerings, including the opening-night film, Breakfast With Scot. But the batting average of this modest sample supports what the festival has demonstrated time and again: It’s certainly possible to catch a solid feature or short over the course of the fest’s 10 days. But it’s more likely the fiction will leave you feeling the moviegoing equivalent of a sharp prick in the eye. —TO

Reel Affirmations runs from Thursday, Oct. 16, to Saturday, Oct. 25, at multiple venues. Individual tickets are $10 unless otherwise noted. For a complete schedule and more information, see reelaffirmations.org.

Breakfast With Scot
Directed by Laurie Lynde

VIDEO: Breakfast With Scot

If ever a Reel Affirmations selection seemed destined for the Disney Channel, it’s Breakfast With Scot. The fest’s opening-night film is about two manly gay men whose machismo is threatened when they become guardians of the World’s Feyest Boy. Based on a novel by Michael Downing, Laurie Lynde’s adaptation offers a sanitized, broad, and inevitably gooey portrait of gay life—but it’s still more watchable than many of the festival’s softcore-with-a-side-of-story features. Tom Cavanagh stars as Eric, a former Toronto Maple Leaf turned sports anchor who lives with his partner, Sam (Ben Shenkman) but remains closeted in professional circles. A contrivance of events involving Sam’s no-good brother leaves the couple with temporary custody of Scot (Noah Bernett), an 11-year-old with a penchant for boas, Christmas carols, and gardenia-scented hand cream. Eric and Sam, meanwhile, are anti-PDA—they share only one peck on the lips during the entire film—with Eric in particular horrified at Scot’s every swishy move. His strategy? Get the figure-skating boy playing hockey. Breakfast With Scot is NHL-approved (it’s reportedly the first gay-themed movie to get permission to use a professional sports league’s logos) and occasionally funny, mostly due to Cavanagh’s way with a quip. But the oh-please moments pile on as Eric’s and Scot’s personalities become more exaggerated and the story turns trite. (Spoiler alert: In parenting Scot, Eric learns something about himself.) Worse is the line that marks their official bonding moment, with Eric responding to Scot’s worry that a friend will think he’s a sissy: “We’re all a little sissy around here.” —TO

At 7 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 16 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW, (202) 328-6000; $20

The Sensei
Directed by Diana Lee Inosanto

VIDEO: The Sensei

Diana Lee Inosanto’s GLBT kung-fu flick may be the first of its kind (To Wong Fu… notwithstanding), but The Sensei doesn’t shy from treading some familiar ground—namely, the after-school special. The film begins with young gay martial-arts master McClain (Michael O’Laskey II) rescuing a black pastor and his sister from a carjacking at the hands of two neo-Nazi-type assailants. If the opening doesn’t provide the right clunky stereotype busting for your taste, The Sensei also traces the story of McClain’s martial-arts teacher—the beautiful Karen O’Neil (Inosanto), a woman who proves impressively melodramatic in the face of systemic discrimination. Set in small-town Colorado at the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic (early on, the camera pans to a newspaper scare headline telling you as much), The Sensei locates an intriguing intersection of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but Inosanto’s debut script (she’s spent most of her film career as a stuntperson) feeds on sweeping generalizations and doesn’t bother to fortify them with any realistic emotional base. The Sensei would have done better to bust a few genre conventions along with its stereotypes. —AH

At 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at the Lincoln Theatre; free

Choose Connor
Directed by Luke Eberl

VIDEO: Choose Connor

Luke Eberl’s political-corruption drama, Choose Connor, employs its share of mavericks: Chief among them are Lawrence Connor, the boy-loving, party-drugging senatorial candidate, and Caleb, his unschooled foster kid who crafts gay Magic Eye collages in Connor’s image. Both turn their rogue eyes upon Owen, the precocious middle-school idealist (some call him “nerd”). When Connor takes fresh-faced Owen under his skeevy wing in the last leg of the campaign season, Owen’s yes-we-can idealism threatens to buckle under the Connor campaign’s just-say-no pressures. With all the kiddie-themed heebie-jeebies packed into the script (see: anonymously-mailed taped confessions, weird puppeteers), Choose Connor could have made for a surreal peek into a particularly fucked political machine. But Eberl, like Connor, errs in his characterization of the young protagonist: While Connor and Caleb stretch credulity with their instability, Owen is far too levelheaded in the face of political (and homosexual) seduction to pass as a real 15-year-old boy. —AH

At 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at the Lincoln Theatre

The Birthday
Directed by Negin Kianfar and Daisy Mohr

“Iran is regarded as a paradise for transsexual patients,” a doctor says in Negin Kianfar and Daisy Mohr’s The Birthday. It’s a startling statement, if only partially true: The government issues a new birth certificate to anyone who undergoes a sex change much more quickly than other countries—and without a telling asterisk. More shocking is that transsexuality is not expressly forbidden by the Koran and therefore considered A-OK in the Muslim world, even though homosexuality is still taboo. Of course, this documentary proves that the letter of the law is a different beast than the spirit of it as the directors follow three pre-op transgenders, two in a relationship with each other and the third, Mustafa/Mahtab, dating a man as she takes steps toward surgery. (“With God’s help,” the aforementioned doctor tells Mahtab, “you’ll be a beautiful, tall girl.”) Though God and certain medical professionals may be on their side, the rest of society isn’t always as accepting, especially when it’s a man becoming a woman: Mahtab’s mother, while open-minded, points out that she’s safer and has more rights as a man, while her father struggles to be loving but admits that he’s ashamed. The documentary, even at a mere 63 minutes, suffers from padding—there’s lots of dancing, plus a seemingly staged scene in which the camera’s trained on Mahtab until tears flow—when additional commentary from the subjects’ family and friends would have added depth. Still, the broad strokes of the story are compelling. —TO

At 11 a.m. Sat., Oct. 18 at Goethe-Institut, 814 7th St. NW, (202) 289-1200

Anyone and Everyone
Directed by Susan Polis Schutz

When Robert Kerry Graves finally made the decision to tell his Mormon parents that he was homosexual, he’d already exhausted plenty of energy trying not to be what his religion said was pretty much the worse thing someone could be. So even if their response was bad, Graves said, he knew he wasn’t going to put himself through more counseling or prayers: “I’m gay. This is the way it is,” he says in Anyone and Everyone, a documentary about how families react when a child comes out of the closet. It’s a cheerable moment—and there are several more still to come in Susan Polis Schutz’s deeply moving film. Parents of all ethnicities and faiths are profiled, including an Asian mother who thought her academic daughter was merely “reading too much” and an Oklahoma father who had spent most of his son’s life saying gay people were “abominations” in the eyes of God. And though not all of them move past their prejudice, many of them do—and some so quickly after hearing their son’s or daughter’s news that your heart soars. Graves’ parents in particular are inspirations, immediately dismissing their church’s teaching and becoming advocates in the gay community. Graves’ mother reasons that religious beliefs and homosexuality can’t be mutually exclusive: “People are so hung up on the sex, they forget about the love.” —TO

At 12:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 18 at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, (301) 495-6720

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon
Directed by Jeffry Schwartz

VIDEO: Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon

Nowadays, anybody can be a porn star: All you’ve got to do is bag a D-list celebrity, fire up the cell-phone camera, and watch the blog hits roll in. Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon takes us back to the halcyon days of pornography, when the flicks had plots, mainstreamers were prudes, and getting sex on the screen was more difficult. Schwartz’s documentary tells the story of Jack Stillman, a closeted aspiring actor who in the ’70s shed his inhibitions—and his daddy issues—to become “Jack Wrangler,” Hollywood’s biggest gay porn star. Wrangler was a charismatic, Robert Redford–if–you–squint leading man, known as much for his macho persona as he was his sizable member (which Stillman once had set in plaster to reproduce as marketable dildos). The documentary shines when acting as a Wrangler highlight reel, but sometimes lingers too long on the real-life Stillman, whose inferiority complex to his onscreen persona seems, at times, justified. But stay tuned for the doc’s mid-feature turn—when Stillman turns straight, things really heat up. —AH

At 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at Goethe-Institut

Otto, or Up With Dead People
Directed by Bruce LaBruce

Zombie Prom

Directed by Vince Marcello

Brian the Gnome Slayer

Directed by Brian Tosko Bello

VIDEO: Zombie Prom

Considering that zombies have recently been tweaked with viruses and speed, another spin on the classic ghoul was perhaps inevitable. So in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto, or Up With Dead People, we get the Emo Undead. How Otto (Jay Crisfar), with his hoodie, loose tie, mussed bangs, and disaffected stare, is different from a Fall Out Boy fan-club member isn’t immediately clear, which is actually part of the plot: As Otto stumbles around Berlin and even answers a casting call to play a zombie in a pretentious pseudo-intellectual film, the director and crew just think he’s got some bad grooming habits and a screw loose. Otto’s story, however, isn’t really the focus of this mess—nothing is, except maybe for LaBruce’s fondness for tiresome philosophizing, “edgy,” often discordant music, and hyperstylization, such as a character who’s always filmed as if she’s in a silent movie. (Interesting idea, but doesn’t quite work.) Also: In the movie-within-a-movie, a zombie fucks a corpse’s guts. In close up, wang and all. Otto is completely incoherent—except for the thrusting, that’s pretty clear—and so is Brian the Gnome Slayer, the opening short in this double bill, though at least it has enough DIY goofiness (death by toast, Miss Piggy as a Chucky-like killer) to never take itself seriously. In another league is Zombie Prom, a John Waters–esque musical starring RuPaul that boasts witty dialogue, catchy songs, and comic-strip panels punctuating the action. It’s more slick than original, but it beats its godawful companions rotted-hands down. —TO

At 11:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 18 at the Lincoln Theatre

In Sickness and in Health
Directed by Pilar Prassas

Once upon a time, it was against the law for people of different races to marry. Legislators woke up to the fact that this long-accepted convention violated civil rights, and steps were taken to change—gasp!—that alleged bedrock of American society, marriage. How is that discrimination different than the one now being fought by same-sex couples, who are gradually being granted “civil unions” by state lawmakers but are still largely being told that no way, no how will those be considered marriages, lest the institution be tainted? That’s one minor but incisively eye-opening argument in Pilar Prassas’ In Sickness and in Health, a documentary that follows a New Jersey lawsuit filed by seven homosexual couples for the right to marry their partners. The focus of this fight is Marilyn Maneely, who left her husband and five grown children when she met and fell in love with Diane Marini. The new couple’s happiness was cut short, though, when Marilyn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and quickly deteriorated. While New Jersey law allowed them to “DP,” or register as domestic partners to obtain some legal rights, Marini was still denied the full benefits—and respect—that a recognized marriage would bring. The stories of other couples profiled are not as tragic but are no less moving, and Prassas’ chronicle of their drawn-out case and its confusing, anticlimatic rulings captures the frustration of their fight. —TO

At 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Lincoln Theatre

The Secrets
Directed by Avi Neshar

Beneath the Jewish orthodox trappings of The Secrets is a standard romantic plot: In this Israeli film, an unlikely schoolyard romance blooms between the straight-laced, conservative student and the plucky, chain-smoking rebel. This time, though, the lovebirds are both girls, and the schoolyard is a female seminary in the Jewish holy city of Safed. Naomi (Ania Bukstein) escapes to seminary to fend off an imminent wedding and mourn her mother’s death; Michelle (Michal Shtamler) is sentenced there for bad behavior by her French parents. After an initial clash of personalities—Michelle smokes, Naomi has asthma; Naomi is studious, Michelle engineers whimsical soup-kitchen water fights—the girls reluctantly team up to help a dying French woman who begs them to help her find God (Fanny Ardant). The screenwriter, actress-comedian Hadar Galron, manages to inject a delicate cleverness into both the orthodox Jewish culture it critiques and the romantic arc it mimics—and in two languages, no less. French film veteran Ardant gets top-billing in this French and Hebrew film, but her star is eclipsed this time by the pair of Israeli ingénues, Bukstein and Shtamler. —AH

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Sixth & I Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, (202) 408-3100

Lokas
Directed by Gonzalo Justiniano

In a film centered on a Chilean discoteca filled with flamboyant gay men, Lokas’ most pervasive stereotype is its Mexican protagonist’s machismo. Widower Charly (Rodrigo Bastidas) dreams about coquettish, moaning women, cribs girls’ phone numbers on his son’s homework, and calls gay guys “faggots.” But Charly’s red sports car, while macho, is less than legal. Following a stint in jail, Charly is kicked out of his mom’s Mexican home and sent to the doghouse—here, Chile. Once down south, Charly and 9-year-old son Pedro (Raimundo Bastidas, Rodrigo’s real-life kid) are reacquainted with Charly’s estranged papa—shockingly, now a homosexual theater director living Birdcage-style with partner Flavio. In a reversal from La Cage aux Folles, this family sexual-orientation adventure forces son to fake gay to fit in with father—implausibly, the only Chilean job Charly can hold down is one in the film’s titular gay club. But though Lokas turns its gay satire on Latin masculinity this go around, the jokes remain the same. If Mexican machismo really is 10 years behind the times, it can still rent The Birdcage on VHS. —AH

At 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20, at AFI Silver

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