Three groups came together this year for a consolidated LGBT film festival in New York City: Newfest, Outfest, and Film Society of Lincoln Center, which played host in its Walter Reade Theatre, a classy location but unfortunately not providing as many seats as a large commercial theater might have done. I add this caveat because by the time I got around to obtaining tickets, many of the shows I wanted to see were already sold out. As I result, I can only comment firsthand on two of the new movies screened during the festival, Geography Club, by Gary and Edmund Entin (director and screenwriter), and Last Summer, by Mark Thiedeman (director, writer and editor). Both of these films dealt with the travails of gay male adolescents.
Geography Club, to my mind the more accomplished of the two films, presents the story of a closeted high school student who gradually inches his way out of the closet within the welcoming structure of a small LGBT student group formed under the innocuous name “Geography Club” in order to avoid undue attention from the rest of the student body. The film was inspired by a popular teen novel, tells a compelling story, is well paced, photographed and acted, and has already won an award at a gay film festival in Los Angeles earlier this year. The film is headed for a commercial theater release later this year, and one hopes will find some success. That said, I would point out that the novel on which it was based depicts a slightly earlier time in the development of gay student organizations in high schools, and in many parts of the country attitudes have certainly moved forward. The filmmakers decided to depict this as “contemporary” rather than “recent historical,” which involved some changes to the novel, and at times makes what is happening on the screen seem slightly incongruous — until one remembers that progress has been uneven at the high school level and so this might still be a realistic depiction in many parts of the country.
Last Summer shows the perils of influence. The festival program book refers to “echoes of Terrence Malick” in describing the film, but I thought the heavy influence of Malick at times overcame the common sense of the director/writer/editor. Indeed, I thought this film would have benefited from those functions being divided up, since more eyes on the final product would probably have produced a more effective final product. This is a tale of two 16 year old boys infatuated with each other, but suffering the pains of that final summer before one of them will go “up north” to college, leaving the other academically mediocre one to his fate in the rural south. No family tensions here about sexuality – the parents seem to accept their sons’ relationship – but the more gifted of the two is adopted and there are tensions with his adoptive parents due to his somewhat superior intellect and manner. The pacing is “stately” – that’s actually a kind way to put the very static feel of this film. I reacted to the opening sequences by thinking it was like watching paint dry (and a facebook friend who was also there reacted to this comment on my newsfeed by observing that in fact it appeared that we were actually watching paint dry at one point during the opening sequence). Some scenes had more animation, but the filmmaker effected the Malick style by making his characters laconic and slow-moving, and interspersing lots of very beautiful but very static shots along the way that put a real strain on the attention of the viewer. Malick, the experienced hand, generally knows how long to prolong a static shot without losing all momentum in his film, but this less experienced filmmaker has yet to acquire that skill. Having somebody edit the film would have helped. Giving the characters more dialogue to develop their personalities would have helped. Using classical music on the soundtrack is find — avoids copyright issues!!) — but came across as heavy-handed at times. In short, I found this much less convincing as a film than Geography Club. But it was worth seeing and I hope the filmmaker learns a lot from the experience and finds his own distinctive approach in the future.