An undercurrent of economic unease at this year's N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival | Film Beat | Indy Week
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An undercurrent of economic unease at this year's N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 

Savannah Stehlin and Michael Arnold in "Spork"

Photo courtesy of Spork The Movie LLC

Savannah Stehlin and Michael Arnold in "Spork"

This past year, which saw the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the legalization of gay marriage in New York, gives the LGBT community reason to be optimistic. But, of course, there's much more to gay and transgender life than political victories. At the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, held again this year at the currently-under-renovation Carolina Theatre in Durham, optimism is integrated into films that depict diverse issues, including struggles with grief, thwarted ambition, love, adolescence and midlife regret.

While there may not be an intentional theme to the festival, the economy nevertheless emerges as an ongoing concern. Throughout these films, which were programmed by a selection committee, we see the many ways in which unstable salaries, unsteady job prospects and uncertain futures play havoc on people's lives. Economic concerns are rarely the central focus of any particular film, but they always seem to be peering in from the side or around a corner. But that's not to say this year's titles are a dour bunch. There are lively films on tap, including several of those we were able to see, and we're curious about a few we weren't, as well.

Gun Hill Road is an intimate film about Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales), who returns from prison to discover that his son Michael (Harmony Santana) is a transexual woman. The Bronx neighborhood where Michael lives with his mother (Judy Reyes) and father provides a hard-boiled backdrop, but the film is anchored by the strong performances of Santana and Morales. Santana deftly explores Michael's struggle to adjust to a new life and new expectations as a woman, yet the film doesn't treat Michael's case as tragic. Her life is difficult, but we get the sense that she will turn out all right in the end. Morales has the more difficult journey, and the film does a good job with exploring his anger. It's not so much over his son but about his own loss of self and identity, both in prison and in a world—full of cruel bosses, suspicious parole officers and the temptations of easy money through crime—in which he no longer feels vital. It's frustration over a host of expectations about what it means to be a man and a father. Morales is effective, making Enrique neither villainous nor pathetic, but rather a fully rounded man at war with himself.

Au Pair, Kansas tells the story of Helen (Traci Lords) and her two sons, who are grieving for their recently deceased husband and father, a closeted bisexual. Helen hires a 20-something Norwegian au pair named Oddmund (Hvard Lilleheie) to help on their ranch and with the kids, but Oddmund's strange antics and laid-back attitude toward life's problems do not go over well with Helen. The film's ultimately inclusive message—spread through the power of soccer, no less—is touching, but its tone rockets back and forth between the broadly comic Oddmund and the more serious struggles of Helen, never striking a good balance or falling into a comfortable rhythm.

Adam (Matthew Ludwinski) in Going Down in La-La Land finds himself in more cinematically familiar economic terrain: He's an aspiring actor who has just moved to LA in pursuit of his dreams. When he runs into money problems, he begins working for a male pornography studio. The pornography plot, however, is soon brushed aside as the film evolves into a love story where Adam meets a famous but closeted TV star named John. The relationship is underdeveloped, though, since John isn't even introduced until more than halfway through the film. Going Down is neither dark enough to be an exploration of Hollywood's underbelly nor romantic enough to be a compelling love story. There are touches of quirkiness on the margins—Adam's do-anything-for-fame roommate, his overeager boss—but otherwise the film plays it safe. Money problems are just part of the fantasy.

One film that fully embraces quirkiness is Spork, which owes a lot of its style to films like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. It's the story of a teenage hermaphrodite (played by Savannah Stehlin) and her struggles to fit in at school. Spork lives in a filthy trailer with her out-of-work brother, and yearns to win a school dance competition so she can pay for surgery she believes will bring her true happiness. Along the way, she learns to make friends and deal with her mother's death. The movie includes some very foul-mouthed 14-year-olds and a quasi-Mean Girls subplot in which a group of popular girls attempt to humiliate Spork. Ultimately, the film is lighthearted though realistic about the limits of fantasy.

Judas Kiss, another film about the travails of Hollywood, is a science fiction morality play where washed-up director Zachary Wells (Charlie David) travels to his alma mater to judge a student film festival and ends up meeting his younger self (Richard Harmon). Talented but filled with dreams of fame and wealth, the younger Zachary has to learn to overcome his demons and make the most of his talent, while the older Zachary needs to learn how to start anew. Whether the film works or not largely depends on your need for the science-fictional element to actually make any sense (it doesn't) and how much you invest in characters who are little more than entitled film school students.

Nearly 20 other features round out the program, from the Iranian film Circumstance, this year's Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner for drama, to the documentary Hollywood to Dollywood, about two brothers' odyssey to meet Dolly Parton. The festival also offers a variety of shorts like No Direction, about a recent graduate using a GPS as a substitute for life choices, and The Colonel's Outing, a New Zealand film about an elderly writer and his friendship with a boisterous retired colonel.

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