Queers of all stripes are a minority, so describing the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, aka Frameline39, as The Big Tent of the annual Bay Area movie calendar might seem oxymoronic. But the fest, which begins tonight and continues through June 28 in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, is an identity-oriented event with a mandate to represent all members of the LGBTQ community. So there are times when Frameline feels like The Big Flea Market, with everyday staples (like conventional rom-coms) next to unfamiliar curiosities (achingly vulnerable video diaries).
Lest that sound like a dig at the programmers, consider that even -- or especially -- in an age when everyone carries a screen with them, few things are more powerful than seeing yourself, or your friends, on The Big Screen. That said, the festival has matured beyond unambiguous, unchallenged affirmations. For all of the shared celebratory moments, there’s plenty of selfish, immoral, self-destructive and cowardly behavior on display. It’s called human nature.
Consequently, it’s puzzling yet not entirely surprising that Frameline would open with a biopic about a conflicted gay man who rejects his and other people’s homosexuality. I Am Michael revisits Michael Glatze’s deeply weird journey from gay publisher and activist in 1990s San Francisco to heterosexual and married Christian preacher. The film offers several catalysts for Glatze’s self-reevaluation (his mother’s premature death, panic over his own health, the resurfacing of sublimated religious beliefs) but James Franco (terrific as a young Allen Ginsberg in Howl five short years ago) is painfully inept at making us believe, let alone care about, Glatze’s anguish.
You’ll also find yourself thinking about performance quite a bit during the documentary Finding Phong (June 27), a brave and touching portrait of a young Vietnamese man transitioning from man to woman. Beginning as a desperately confessional video diary with Phong tearfully soliciting his mother’s acceptance, the film glides to Phong’s flamboyant and equally desperate efforts to gain acceptance from friends as a (pre-op) woman. Her search for happiness takes her to Thai doctors and, in the film’s most revelatory sequences, an annual New Year’s celebration with her family.
The wonderfully seductive Kenyan anthology Stories of Our Lives (June 22 and 27) provides an essential reminder that the pressure of societal “norms” is still a very big deal. The five intimate segments, inspired by oral histories and shot in beautiful black-and-white, vividly present the experiences of young Kenyans who live in fear and danger lest anyone find out they are gay or lesbian.
Queers in the art colony of Provincetown, Cape Cod in the 1920s didn’t have to deal with ostracism and violence. But jealousy and greed were present, or so we discern from Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson (June 27). Michelle Boyaner’s feel-good doc follows out Hollywood writer-director Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) probing the mystery of her late great-aunt’s relegation to an asylum and bringing Edith’s unknown paintings to prominence. Anderson’s persistence and purpose are remarkable, but have to get past her other characteristics: condescension and control-freakiness.
The pioneering dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, who turns 81 in November, is thankfully unburdened with an excessive ego. “I never wanted to be famous,” the native San Franciscan relates in local filmmaker Jack Walsh’s expertly made Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer (June 27). “A very intent hundred people is all I need to keep going.” The film is as modest and engaging as its subject, allowing Rainer’s character and art to hold center stage.
After local filmmaker Cary Cronenwett and his trans pal Flo McGarell released the audacious, one-of-a-kind indie feature Maggots and Men six years ago, McGarell set sail for Haiti. Cronenwett’s Peace of Mind (June 20) documents McGarell’s success at the helm of an art center in Jacmel, Haiti as an instigator, facilitator, inspiration and artist. A lovingly crafted and admirably low-key tribute to a person who accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time on the planet, Peace of Mind is named for the hotel that collapsed on McGarell during the 2010 quake.
The marquee-friendly title of the winning Canadian rom-com Portrait of a Serial Monogamist (June 20 and 27) isn’t exactly accurate: Elsie (Diane Flacks) has had plenty of affairs, but the relationship she terminates in the first reel is of the long-term, cohabiting kind. Commitment issues, anyone? A good deal of talent on both sides of the camera freshens the familiar saga of an attractive urban gal’s search for romantic bliss. A crowd-pleaser packed with been there, done that moments of hilarity as well as embarrassment, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is escapist entertainment that’s a cut above the stuff Hollywood ships to multiplexes for young hetero couples. In The Big Tent, there’s even room for fun.