Did “Mississippi I Am” directors Harriet Hirshorn and Katherine Linton read Alice Walker’s essay about staying as a defiance of haters? Fighting for LGBT rights in homophobic American Family Association Radio’s home state seems to be a daunting task for the Mississippi teenagers portrayed in this gently inspiring documentary. Yet the pride of such Mississippi teens as Constance McMillen in “doing what’s right” winds up inspiring Pastor Pam Walsh’s church and even singer Lance Bass.
“Queermation!” is the title given to a program of animated shorts with LGBT themes. Of the shorts on offer, this writer admittedly missed Jeanette Castillo’s “The Performance of Drowning” and Michael Derry’s “Troy: Naked Boys Behind Bars, Sing!” However, the other shorts in the program fall somewhere on a scale between middling and excellent.
Landing on the middling end of the scale are the two shorts which took less than straightforward approaches to their subjects. Lares Feliciano’s “Land: An Animation” takes place after ecological disaster ends human civilization. The two non-heteronormative women who become viewpoint characters offer different takes on the Earth Mother stereotype. However, how or if they will deal with humanity’s possible extinction is left ambiguous. Kalapa’s “Strong and Dreaming” offers the animated sexual fantasies of a dreaming woman. In keeping with the title, the main character does realize her inner strength. But the insights gleaned along the way fail to impress.
Both Alex Bohs’ “Half” and Emilio Marti Lopez’ “(Un)Animated” mix live action with animation, but each short achieves different results. The silent “Half” merely offers the standard story of two lesbian cartoonists who are destined to be separated by fate. “(Un)Animated” may use its animated central character’s feeling out of place in a live action world as a metaphor for LGBTs uncomfortable in a mostly straight world. However, it brings wit, ambiguity, and some unexpected visual gags in depicting its character’s plight.
Going for balls-out filthy entertainment and achieving it handily is Elka Kerkhofs’ racy “The Confession of Father John Thomas.” When the titular clerical penis hears lesbian vagina Miss Beaver Eater’s confession, he finds himself doubting his own sexuality. The amount of sexual imagery and lewd language offered in Kerkhofs’ five minutes of hilarious filthiness will satisfy anyone who doesn’t get censorious on hearing the word “vagina.”
The best “Queermation!” shorts turn out to be the documentaries. Matthew Heckart’s “Nowhere to Run: Paul’s Story” silently recounts a sexual orientation refugee’s tale from the files of ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration). Paul and his lover attempt to emigrate from the very homophobic country of Jamaica for the United Kingdom’s supposed safety. The film painfully depicts an almost cosmically malicious universe which dooms Paul’s efforts to failure.
Charissa King-O’Brien’s “The Paper Mirror” features no animation whatsoever. The closest the film comes to presenting cartoon illustration comes courtesy of one of the film’s subjects, “Fun Home” author Alison Bechdel.
The film’s other subject, painter Riva Lehrer, provides an intriguing counterpoint to Bechdel. Like the cartoonist, the painter has established her reputation with far different subject matter. In Lehrer’s case, she’s done surrealistic paintings of people living with disabilities of various sorts. Lehrer’s newest efforts have turned to portraiture. The painter, a fan of Bechdel, wants the cartoonist to sit for her.
One of “The Paper Mirror”’s strengths is its depiction of Bechdel at an interesting career crossroads. The cartoonist may have followed up the ending of her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” with her well-received graphic memoir “Fun Home.” Yet it’s clear her discomfort at dealing with her thorny relationship with her mother has hampered her ability to complete her follow-up graphic novel.
The brassy Lehrer provides a wonderful counterpoint to Bechdel. The painter is someone who can turn wearing rainbow shoelaces into an act of defiance. More importantly, her process of creating the painting triggers some new sense of creative awareness in the cartoonist. The end result of the two women’s artistic collaboration yields a highly satisfying work of psychological insight.
Both sweet comedy and bitter homophobia can be found in Saratsawadee Wongsomphet’s endearing romantic tale “Yes Or No?”
College student Pie’s dream of not having a lesbian roommate flops badly when her new roommate Kim appears to be a tomboy (butch lesbian in Thai slang). Kim’s sexual naïvete doesn’t dissuade Pie from physically and emotionally distancing herself from her rural-born roommate. The country girl’s good-heartedness helps her ignore Pie’s rudeness. Over time, various kindnesses cause Pie to slowly become attracted to her roommate. But can their relationship survive the attentions of a lesbian smitten with Kim as well as the influence of the homophobes Pie personally knows?
Romantic comedies are the comfort food of film. While the viewer has a general idea of what to expect in such stories, that predictability can backfire against the viewer by sapping suspense from the story’s developments. Wongsomphet avoids that trap by varying the speed at which Pie and Kim develop affection for each other. Pie’s homophobia is not based on outright bigotry, but fears about her own feelings towards lesbians. Kim’s own reluctance about acknowledging her feelings for Pie comes from fears of living up to the tomboy stereotype suggested by her appearance. Not addressed, though, is whether Kim’s awareness of the class differences between her and Pie affect her relation to the urbanite.
The film’s early comic touches, such as Kim silently rocking out on her ukulele, helps take the sting out of Pie’s homophobia by quietly ridiculing it. But a later effective seriocomic moment involves the single spoken word scene involving the usually spooky and withdrawn Nerd.
“Yes Or No?”’s effectiveness hinges on the leading actresses’ sweeping the viewer along, even in moments of weakness on their characters’ emotional journeys. Wongsomphet’s film ends up being one of those sweetly entertaining tales where the viewer wants the end credits to not roll until Pie and Kim get a final chance to reach a happy ending.