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Reeling Film Festival overview
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-09-14

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One of Chicago's most valued cultural institutions, Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival, returns from Thursday, Sept. 18 to Thursday, Sept. 25.

This 32nd edition of the festival—the second oldest of its kind in the world—offers more than 100 feature and short films from 19 countries. Programming Director Alexandra Ensign ( ably stepping into the shoes of yours truly ) has put together a wide ranging slate with literally something for everyone. Best, of course, for Our People, is that everything being screened is queer-themed—a rarity that makes Reeling a must-see for film lovers and supportive community members alike. The majority of the films are having not only their Chicago premiere but what will very likely be their sole theatrical screenings here.

Reeling's opening night kicks off Sept. 18 with Boy Meets Girl, a moving coming-of-age romantic trans dramedy that is being screened at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Writer-director Eric Schaeffer and trans actress Michelle Hendley, who stars, will be in attendance. A pre-screening reception will be held at the Music Box at 5:30 p.m. ( separate ticket required ) and an opening-night celebration will follow the screening at Ginger Man Tavern, 3740 N. Clark St. ( separate ticket required for post screening celebration ).

The French-Canadian queer auteur Xavier Dolan ( I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways ) is back with the festival's International Centerpiece, the seductive thriller Tom at the Farm. It will screen on Friday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, 2828 N. Clark St., the fest's primary location. Lilting, a drama starring out actor Ben Whishaw ( Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, Cloud Atlas ) is the festival's gay centerpiece. It screens Wed., Sept. 23, at 7 p.m., followed by the 8:45 p.m. screening of Drunktown's Finest—a drama set on a Navajo reservation—which is the festival's trans centerpiece.

Well-known out comic actor Alec Mapa ( Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives ) and director Andrea James will be on hand for a screening of the documentary Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy on Friday, Sept. 19, at 9:30 p.m. that focuses on the changes that came about after Mapa and his partner adopted a 5-year-old. The festival's lesbian centerpiece is the sexy romance Anatomy of a Love Seen, which screens Saturday, Sept. 20, at 7:15 p.m. Director Marina Bader Rice and star Sharon Hinnendael will participate in a post-screening Q&A. Blackbird—the coming-of-age gay drama from Noah's Arc writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk and starring Mo'Nique and Isaiah Washington—is the festival's closing-night feature. It screens on Friday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. Polk and Gary L. Gray, a young actor featured in the film, will be on hand for the screening and at an after-party ( separate ticket required ) to be held at the Landmark Century.

Here's a random sampling of several of the festival's offerings:

Thursday, Sept. 18

Boy Meets Girl—What gives a fresh spin on this Southern-fried coming-of-age tale from writer/director Eric Schaeffer is not just that the teen in question has already come to terms with her sexuality, but that she's also comfortable being transgender. Michelle Hendley, the trans actress who plays Ricky, is refreshingly down-to-earth. Droll but not self-deprecating, confident in herself yet modest to a fault, Ricky is seemingly the rare teenager without a need for constant melodrama. And yet, plenty of that is provided ( along with plenty of sexy times and comedic confusion ) when Ricky suddenly strikes up a very close friendship with Francesca, the pretty local rich girl. The friendship creates an unexpected crisis in the lives of both girls when Ricky's hunky but sweet best friend Robby and Francesca's even hunkier fiancee become jealous of the friendship.

Friday, Sept. 19

Tom at the Farm—Out French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan takes the lead in this Hitchcock-tinged thriller ( down to its look and eerie music score ). The pouty-lipped Dolan plays Tom, a young copywriter from Montreal who travels to rural Quebec to attend the funeral of his closeted lover. Once there, he becomes enmeshed in a series of psychological—and very physical—cat-and-mouse games with the lover's hunky older brother, Francis, who is determined to keep the knowledge of the brother's gay sexuality from his mother at any cost. A pseudo-S&M relationship develops that is elevated by the arrival of the young woman who Tom and Francis pass off as the dead man's girlfriend. Twisted and elevated by strong performances, Dolan once again offers further proof of his extraordinary talent.

Saturday, Sept. 20

Queers in the Kingdom—In this eye-opening documentary from locally based writer-director Markie Hancock, we learn that Wheaton College ( Billy Graham's alma mater ) in west suburban Chicago is not just one of many conservative Christian colleges in the country, it's also the most virulently anti-gay. So what effect has that had on its myriad of closeted LGBT graduates? Hancock has tracked down a host of the college's alumni who share their often heartbreaking stories and how many of them in the ensuing years have fought to offset the college's anti-gay attitudes. Hancock will attend the screening, which Voice of the Nation is sponsoring.

Out in the Night—Renata, Patrice, Terrain, and Venice—four feisty, funny African-American lesbian friends from childhood—were out for a night of fun with a few other friends in the gay friendly West Village in Manhattan when they were viciously threatened by a man on the street. An ensuing altercation escalated with the man being injured and the four friends arrested. Dubbed by the media as a gang of "killer lesbians," the trial and convictions that followed were a mockery of justice, with a clear signal that the women's race and sexuality were key to their guilty verdicts. Director Blair Doroshwalther's no-nonsense account of the incident and its profound effect on the lives of the women and their families ( who are all great camera subjects ) is both frustrating and tremendously moving. This is highly recommended.

Anatomy of a Love Seen—Director Marina Rice Bader's sexy romance focuses on two actresses whose initial filming of a very hot love scene led to a short-lived but hot affair. Six months later, Zoe and Mal are called back to refilm the scene but, with their ardor cooled ( thanks to a lot of baggage each has brought to the romance ), will they be able to rekindle the necessary emotions required? Marina Rice Bader and actress Sharon Hinnendael will attend the screening.

Sunday, Sept. 21

Alex & Ali—Local filmmaker Malachi Leopold's moving, bittersweet documentary portrait of his Uncle Alex, a former Peace Corps volunteer who met and fell in love with Ali, an Iranian, when he was volunteering in the country in the 1970s. Forced to flee the country in 1978 as the Islamic Revolution was beginning to take hold, Alex and Ali were physically separated for 35 years, only able to keep in contact through mail and phone calls. Leopold follows their reunion in Turkey —an event that is organized at great risk to Ali, who must decide whether to seek asylum or return to the anti-gay Iran and face dire consequences. Is the love these two men shared 35 years ago strong enough to survive these challenges? Can the duo overcome their philosophical and ideological differences? Leopold tackles the huge questions facing his two sweet-natured protagonists ( both great camera subjects ) with admirable restraint.

Crazy Bitches—Meth Head writer-director Jane Clark follows that riveting drama of addiction with this change-of-pace horror/comedy about a passel of former sorority chicks and their gay bestie tag-a-long who are stalked in a backwoods cabin by a serial killer. A backhanded homage to Sleepaway Camp and the Friday the 13th films, Clark's movie never quite congeals ( it's not particularly funny nor particularly scary ) but the amiable cast ( which features cameos from trans actress Candace Cayne and Guinevere Turner ) and plenty of lesbian sexy times between the killings offer plenty of compensations. Clark, Turner and actress Cathy DeBuono will be on hand for the screening.

Tuesday, Sept. 23

Cupcakes—Israel's most famous queer filmmaker Eytan Fox ( known here for Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water and The Bubble ) makes his first comedy—a delightful, candy-colored confection that focuses on a group of friends, led by the uber-gay Ofer, who accidentally find themselves as finalists in the renowned Eurovision song contest.

Waiting in the Wings: The Musical—A zippy little guilty pleasure from director Jenn Page, this campy ( and very sexy ) pastiche of musicals finds a young, starry-eyed showtune queen ( Jeffrey Johns ) who travels to Manhattan after winning a contest who, through a mix-up, ends up as the latest edition to a male strip revue. Scrooge & Marley star David Pevsner is fun as a bitchy choreographer, and Lee Meriwether, Sally Struthers and Oscar winner Shirley Jones make memorable cameos. Writer-star Johns and musical director/songwriter/actor Arie Gonzalez will attends the screening.

Wed., Sept. 24

Lilting—Out actor Ben Whishaw ( Skyfall, Cloud Atlas ) stars as Richard in this intimate and beautifully observed chamber piece from director Hong Khaou. When Richard's Cambodian lover, Kai, is killed in an accident, Richard is determined to forge a relationship with Kai's formidable, grieving mother—who doesn't speak English, doesn't know that her son was gay ( although she might suspect ) and isn't quite sure who this polite young gentleman even is. The Queer Film Society ( QFS ) is sponsoring the screening.

Drunktown's Finest—Director Sydney Freeland's drama, set in the Southwest, focuses on three troubled young Navajos—Nizhoni, who was adopted by a white family but now is seeking to know her Indian roots; Sickboy, an angry young man with a pregnant wife who is due to enter the armed forces if he can stay out of jail long enough; and Felixia, a transgender female who lives with her medicine-man grandfather and traditional grandmother but works as a prostitute under their very noses. The fraught lives of these three characters, connected by their heritage, plays out as their circumstances escalate. Executive-produced by Robert Redford, the film was a Sundance hit and won the Outfest award for Best U.S. Dramatic Feature Film. It's highly recommended. QFS is sponsoring the screening.

Thursday, Sept. 25

Appropriate Behavior—Desiree Akhavan wrote, directs and stars in this slice-of-life Manhattan set dramedy as Shirin, an Iranian bisexual whose life finds her bouncing from lover to lover and job to job ( with the most rewarding, surprisingly, a gig as a teacher of 5-year-old budding filmmakers ) while trying to focus on something. A Sundance hit, the film is a kindred spirit to Frances Ha and Lena Dunham's HBO Girls series. However, although Shirin's crankiness becomes wearing at times, her often-funny observations and bold sexuality more than compensate.

Gerontophilia—Provocative queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce ( Hustler White, LA Zombie ) returns with this outrageous black comedy—a gay variation on Harold & Maude in which a young white man inexplicably leaves behind his girlfriend for a love affair with an elderly senior citizen he helps escape from the nursing home where he works as an attendant. It's audacious, in typical LaBruce style, but it's also the writer-director's most mainstream work.

Blackbird—Mo'Nique makes her first film appearance since winning the Oscar for Precious with this coming-of-age drama from out director Patrik-Ian Polk. Young Randy ( Julian Walker ), a devout Christian with a gorgeous voice, is having a crisis of faith over his desire for his muscular classmate—evidenced by nocturnal emissions. Mo'Nique plays his anguished mother, whose life revolves around trying to find out what happened to Randy's younger sister, who disappeared years before.

The mother's obsession has all but destroyed her marriage to her easygoing husband ( Isaiah Washington ), who nevertheless tries to keep a relationship going with the angry Randy. Many more plot complications—a budding gay romance, teenage pregnancy, etc.—are melded into the plot of this uneven drama that is elevated by the performances of Mo'Nique ( who doesn't have nearly enough screen time ) and Washington. Polk and actor Gary L. Gray will attend the screening, which BMO Harris Bank is sponsoring.

As noted, the fest has dozens more features ( narratives and documentaries ) in their lineup ( as well as several shorts programs, collected by theme ). A few other anticipated highlights:

Gay—There are David Dance ( a bittersweet drama chronicling the relationship between a gay brother and his sister ), Club King ( a documentary about New York gay party thrower Mario Diaz that features appearances by Jackie Beat and trans activist/performer Justin Vivian Bond ) and Eat with Me ( in which an Asian mother unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep of her son, who is struggling to get his restaurant off the ground and whose mother doesn't know he's gay ). George Takei cameos in the last.

Lesbian—There are BFF's ( a comedy in which two straight women are forced by circumstance to pose as a lesbian couple ), The Foxy Merkins ( a gay hustler parody focused on two outrageous lesbians from the filmmaker of Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same ) and Ever ( a despondent straight woman befriends a compassionate lesbian but the relationship is tested when the lesbian wants more in this gentle relationship drama ).

Complete festival information, tickets and advance tickets are available through 773-293-1447 or at www.reelingfilmfestival.org .


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