Slimmed Down, Grown Up Frameline Dazzles the Eye

Still from 'Two of Us.' (Frameline)

Coming out to join the crowd at the Castro for a hot-and-heavy Frameline screening—with every delectable connotation that suggests—is off the table this year. The 44th San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, revamped and rescheduled from its perennial Pride Month residency, is entirely (with the exception of tonight’s drive-in opener, Shit & Champagne) an online affair.

Making the scene to see and be seen is a thing of the past, and the TBD future.

When sheltering in place became the canon of the county, Frameline hustled to produce a condensed Pride Showcase in June that raised spirits and cash via an online and drive-in program. In the ensuing months, the model and mode of online festivals has become codified (for viewers as much as for presenters), with nearly all the films available to stream anytime during the festival. A specific viewing time is recommended, however, to coincide with the added feature of a live Zoom Q&A with the filmmakers.

Frameline (Sept. 17–27) is renowned, justifiably, for the delirious scope of its program: In a typical year you can find something about and for literally everyone across the fluid LGBTQ+ horizon. A few of those films are less than great, shall we say, but they honor Frameline’s mission to reflect on the big screen the breadth of the community. One of the challenges of moving online is the logistical necessity to pare a sprawling program down to a manageable level without sacrificing big-umbrella diversity.

Still from 'Alice Júnior.' (Frameline)

At 30 features and six shorts program, plus the first season of the locally filmed episodic series Chosen Fam, Frameline 44 is one trimmed-down festival. With the gyms closed for months and sedentary weight gain a pervasive issue, the festival is just about the only slimmed-down beast around.

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The broad multitude of experiences encompassed by the festival is pretty well illustrated by the three Centerpiece films. The award-winning Brazilian coming-of-age romp Alice Júnior relocates its teenage trans protagonist, a burgeoning social-media and real-life star, to a Catholic school in the sticks. Where she triumphs, don’t you know.

The psychological thriller Through the Glass Darkly follows a lesbian mom in small-town Georgia investigating the disappearance of young women—including her daughter. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson takes on racism, homophobia and police brutality through the recurring-yet-never-identical nightmare of a Black teenager’s last day on earth.

Still from 'No Hard Feelings.' (Frameline)

Other standouts in the program include German-Iranian filmmaker Faraz Shariat’s feature debut, No Hard Feelings, which won the Teddy Award for best LGBT film at the Berlin Film Festival in February. The Hanover-born son of Iranian immigrants falls in (love) with an Iranian brother and sister seeking asylum and at risk of deportation. The characters’ struggles aren’t with racist xenophobes or uncomprehending parents but more profoundly with their individual senses of, and needs for, “homeland” and “home.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Filippo Meneghetti’s precisely composed and framed French drama Two of Us (only available Sept. 25–27) is how far viewers will go to sympathize with Nina, the fiercely obsessive half of an older lesbian couple. Across-the-hall neighbors, they’ve kept their love affair secret from Mado’s adult daughter—a gradually spiraling disaster when Mado has a health crisis. The scary-good (and just plain scary) Barbara Sukowa nails Nina at the crossroads of devoted lover and psycho stalker.

Still from 'Cicada.' (Frameline)

New York actor-writer-director Matthew Fifer’s looser approach to his resonant summer-set debut, Cicada, revels in the spontaneity of the lovestruck leads Ben and Sam (Fifer and Sheldon D. Brown) and the unencumbered handheld camerawork. But all that freedom, down to their interracial relationship, eventually runs headfirst into their respective traumas and fears.

Cicada (co-directed by Kieran Mulcare) is set in 2013, when the pseudonymous insects reappeared on the 17-year dot and Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s litany of sexual abuses of boys were finally publicly exposed. The metaphor, especially as it relates to Ben’s childhood, is on the nose but still effective: You can bury the past, but not forever. And when it resurfaces, it won’t leave you alone—as if it ever did.

At 44, Frameline is assuredly not having a midlife crisis. Its COVID-19 crisis, though, will persist through next year’s festival. Regardless of where we are with the virus, I expect the 2021 festival to be a similarly streamlined affair. The pandemic has put a global kibosh on filmmaking, and it’s anyone’s guess how many new films, let alone excellent ones, will be available to screen come June. One more reason, if you needed one, to immerse yourself in the 2020 program.