LGBT Themed Films in Toronto

in 40th Toronto International Film Festival

by Engin Ertan

Among many other important things happening around the world, 2015 is the year same-sex marriage became legal nationwide in the United States of America. The happy end of this on-going battle hardly stops  the human rights violations towards LGBTQI individuals around the world, but it is a milestone in the history of the LGBT movement for sure.

Some might claim that the representation of LGBTQI people in mainstream movies is no longer an issue, but most of us would differ. However in recent years we see more and more queer-themed films, both at major film festivals and also as awards season favourites. This year, the Toronto International Film Festival presented many LGBT films in different sections as well and some of these were among the most anticipated in the whole line-up. Interestingly, most of these films were either biopics or were based on real events.

One of them was The Danish Girl, a semi-biographical film based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and directed by Tom Hooper. The film is set in 1920s Copenhagen and it tells the story of Lili Elbe, a trans woman who is one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery. Hooper’s film tries to be an elegant period piece and it is all about how things looks and being stylish. Unfortunately, this decision is highlighted by Eddie Redmayne’s extremely external performance, which recreates almost every single cliché about the representation of trans individuals on the screen. There are several scenes of Elbe trying on new clothes or looking at herself in the mirror, sometimes with joy and sometimes full of melancholy, but there is little insight to what it was like to be transgender back in those times. On the other hand, the film is more about Elbe’s wife Gerda Wegener anyway and how she supported her husband’s decision to go through a sex reassignment surgery. Even though The Danish Girl was awarded the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival the same week as its screening at TIFF, it drew a lot of criticism as well, especially because of Redmayne’s performance and also for overlooking the queer aspects of the story and telling it with a very hetero-normativd approach. Despite the criticism, The Danish Girl is still a frontrunner for the Oscars, especially in the Supporting Actress category for Alicia Vikander’s performance as Wegener.

Another LGBT themed biopic in the program was Freeheld and it was set in recent times. This drama directed by Peter Sollett came exactly at the right time, because the true story of Laurel Hester, who fought for her pension benefits to be transferred to her same-sex partner is all about marriage equality. However, a film as urgent for our times as Freeheld still feels a little flat, because of a formulaic script and uninspired directorial choices. Sollett relies mostly on the strong performances given by the two leads, Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, but unfortunately that is all Freeheld has to offer to us.

Probably the most controversial LGBT-themed film at this year’s TIFF was Stonewall by Roland Emmerich, a film much discussed after its trailer was released and quickly forgotten after its premiere. The film faced a huge backlash from the LGBTQI community for telling the story of the famous Stonewall riots through a fictional white male character and presenting him as the person who started the riots, whereas in reality the riots were started by trans women of color. For better or worse, whitewashing the Stonewall riots isn’t the biggest failure of this film, it suffers from a tedious and didactic script, cardboard performances, trans-phobia and internalized homophobia. The film depicts the life around Christopher Street and especially sex work as dangerous and seedy, but in contrast, presents the main character’s hometown in Indiana, even though he has to leave it because of homophobia, as sunny and safe.

There were less popular LGBT themed films waiting to be discovered in the TIFF line-up this year as well. One of them was Closet Monster, the first feature film by Canadian filmmaker Stephen Dunn and it won the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film. Dunn’s film tells the story of a troubled young man, who has a wild and creative imagination. He seeks refuge in this fantasy-land and his best friend is his hamster Buffy. While preparing to leave home for college, he also falls in love with a guy and starts to realize that he needs to leave his childhood behind, become an adult and make a new start. Dunn’s film tells a familiar coming-of-age story, but it has lots vitality and a dynamic performance by its lead Connor Jessup. Even though the soundtrack is really good, Dunn sometimes overuses the music and quick editing, but this is still a good discovery of a promising new director.

Probably the oddest LGBT themed film at TIFF this year was Girls Lost, a Swedish film that is reminiscent of the young-adult literature of our times. Written and directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining, Girls Lost tells the story of three nerdy girls, who are constantly bullied by boys in their school. When they accidentally got hold of a mysterious flower, they also discover a way to transform themselves to boys. This gender bending fantasy echoes some of the better teen films from the 1990s, such as The Craft or the Buffy series from television, but it also has a touch of Twilight and some tacky romance as well. This cheesiness might leave a bitter taste in some mouths, but Girls Lost is still an intriguing and surprising film. Obviously, it is still too early to expect courageous LGBT films from Hollywood studios.

Edited by Alissa Simon