Coming-of-age movies never go out of style. There are two reasons for this: First, teenagers make up a huge portion of the movie market, and they like watching stories close to their own experience. Second, when aspiring writers dredge their own lives for drama, laughs, or wisdom, their coming-of-age is often the first thing that bobs to the surface. (Sometimes it’s the only thing.) Because there are so many coming-of-age movies, one needs to discriminate, and for me the determining factor has always been idiosyncrasy. In real life people take many different routes, and cross many different thresholds, on their way to adulthood—yet too many coming-of-age movies involve parents or grandparents dying, or nubile lovers mating in the dewy woods.
This week brings the 33rd edition of Reeling—now inclusively subtitled “The LGBTQ+ International Film Festival”—and with it two coming-of-age tales individualized enough to redeem the genre. The Summer of Sangaile, a dreamy Lithuanian import from writer-director Alanté Kavaïté, follows a young woman from Vilnius as she experiments with lesbian romance but ultimately finds her true self only as a stunt pilot, alone in the sky. Guidance, a wicked comedy by Canadian writer-director Pat Mills, tells the story of a former child star whose refusal to accept his homosexuality drives him into a vortex of self-destructive behavior. In each movie the protagonist’s coming-of-age involves sexual initiation, but aside from that the films are as distinctive as their respective protagonists.
Sangaile opens with a zebra-striped stunt plane flying low across a field, past a crowd of onlookers from which the camera picks out the 17-year-old title character (Julija Steponaityte). It’s quite an exhibition: the plane bolts straight upward to the cheers of the crowd, executes a series of barrel rolls, dragging white smoke in its path, and traces a tight corkscrew to the ground. Sangaile is fascinated by the performance; Auste (Aiste Dirziute), an alluring waitress from the airfield canteen, is fascinated by her, and she begins a slow, patient seduction. An imaginative clothes designer and photographer, Auste enlists Sangaile as a model and shoots numerous photos of her in bold outfits; when these nubile lovers finally mate in the dewy woods—sorry, Alanté, five points off for that scene—they shed a pair of gauzy skirts that Auste has tricked up with Christmas lights.
Auste is a warmhearted woman, but there’s something cold about Sangaile—when her parents’ friends ask her about her career plans, she rudely tells them she wants to be a whore. She’s taken to cutting herself, a row of gashes running up each forearm; as she explains to Auste, she started the collection “after my mother told me I didn’t deserve my name.” The mother, a former ballet dancer, can’t forget the old days and talks about performing onstage in terms very similar to those of flight: a sudden elevation, the self dissolving. Auste arranges for Sangaile to go up with one of the stunt fliers, though the young woman is terrified by the experience. Gradually Sangaile overcomes her fear of flying, but once she does, Auste becomes an encumbrance—nothing can compete with the wide blue emptiness above.
David Gold, the protagonist of Guidance, is a former child actor and sitcom star, now badly alcoholic and reduced to recording motivational tapes. David’s director fires him, complaining that he sounds too gay, and his landlady is ready to evict him. Needing a job, David passes himself off as a high school guidance counselor, and before long his office becomes a magnet for the school misfits, mainly because he dispenses free shots of vodka. When a fat girl comes to him for help, David urges her to own her size and breaks out a package of Hostess cupcakes; when a promiscuous student asks for advice, David tells her to take pride in her sexual appetite; when the school pot dealer shows up in his office, David trades him a pint of vodka for a gram of weed. His advice always boils down to accepting oneself; ironically, he’s incapable of following it himself.
Mills—who includes clips of himself as a child actor on the Nickelodeon series You Can’t Do That on Television—has lifted his comic premise, of an overgrown baby impersonating an educator, from Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock (2003). But Mills has concocted an edgier version of the story, a parable of gay self-acceptance (The School of Cock, if you will). During the end credits, David’s escapade has landed him in prison, but he seems to be having the time of his life. Clad in an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a recreation room, he delivers his self-actualization spiel to three rough-looking fellow inmates and adds, “I just want to take this opportunity to let you know that I’m massively attracted to the three of you right now.” When David comes of age, he’ll probably come like a house on fire. —J.R. Jones
Unless otherwise noted, all tickets are $12 and all screenings are at Landmark’s Century Centre.
Fourth Man Out This genial indie comedy suggests the influence of golden-era Jonathan Demme in its resolutely sunny depiction of small-town American life. A 24-year-old mechanic in central New York state hesitantly comes out of the closet to his friends; to his surprise, not only do they accept his homosexuality, they encourage him to explore gay nightlife and find a boyfriend. The dramatic tension can feel forced, but director Andrew Nackman makes good use of the four leads’ easy rapport, often lingering on scenes of them enjoying each other’s company; in fact this is funniest and most heartfelt when the filmmakers are least concerned with moving the story forward. —Ben Sachs Screens as part of the opening-night program; tickets are $15, $35 with after-party. Thu 9/17, 7:30 PM, Music Box
Freeheld A New Jersey police lieutenant (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with cancer and battles to get her pension benefits awarded to her domestic partner (Ellen Page). Peter Sollet directed a script by Ron Nyswander (Philadelphia). The film opens for a commercial run on October 9. Mon 9/21, 7 PM.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) Based on two short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, this compact Thai drama emphasizes setting and character over incident. A preadolescent boy lives with his aunt, younger sister, and older brother in a working-poor community on the outskirts of Bangkok; writer-director Josh Kim sticks close to the boy’s perspective, divulging little about the characters that the young hero can’t figure out on his own. The older brother is openly gay, but whether he encounters any prejudice isn’t clear—what matters is that the younger boy regards him as a role model and wants to spend time with him. Kim handles their relationship delicately without lapsing into sentimentality. In Thai with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 81 min. Mon 9/21, 7:15 PM.
Liz in September Liz, a former fashion model, lives on a commune with five fellow lesbians in a small oceanside town in Venezuela; diagnosed with terminal cancer, she spends her days pondering what she’ll leave behind for posterity. Director Fina Torres, adapting a play by Jane Chambers, sets an Edenic mood, presenting Liz’s final abode as a sort of heaven on earth. She also generates some erotic tension between the protagonist and a straight woman from Caracas whose car breaks down near the commune; the two flirt as the stranger waits for her car to be repaired, and the prospect of one last fling restores Liz’s passion for living. It’s all pretty drippy, but the leads and the settings are lovely. In Spanish with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 92 min. Sat 9/19, 7 PM.
The New Girlfriend A young husband and father (Romain Duris), traumatized by the death of his wife (Isild Le Besco), starts wearing her clothes and perfume to calm their screaming baby daughter and soon rediscovers a latent interest in cross-dressing. Much of this slack French drama unfolds from the perspective of the late wife’s best friend (Anaïs Demoustier), who becomes the husband’s unlikely confidante and booster; writer-director Francois Ozon uses her as an audience surrogate, coaxing us along toward his piously progressive view of transvestism. Duris in drag looks like a refugee from the New York Dolls, but his character aspires to nothing more than life as a bourgeois, pearl-clad mom; the final shot shows him collecting his now-school-age daughter from class, which proves there’s no sexual kink that can’t be safely domesticated. In French with subtitles. 148 min. —J.R. Jones The film opens for a commercial run on September 25. Fri 9/18, 7 PM.
Stonewall Blockbuster director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) delivers his long-gestating drama about the 1969 rioting in New York City that helped launch the gay-rights movement. The film opens for a commercial run on October 2. Sun 9/20, 7 PM.