The 2009 Outfest film festival kicks off this week in Los Angeles and is chock-full of hidden gems. We've done the work for you and sorted through them all to bring you the films you absolutely should not miss.
American Primitive: We have often seen the story of the man who after years of marriage discovers he is gay and then followed him in his new life, which sometimes involves children. What has rarely been seen is what it means for the children themselves. Director Gwendolyn Wynne helms this autobiographical tale, set in the 1970s, of a widower for whom being with the man he loves comes with the very real risk, at that time and in many places still today, of losing his children. Told from the perspective of teenage daughter Madeline, American Primitive eschews clichés, looks beautiful, and features remarkable performances by nearly all the cast members. With stars like Tate Donovan ( Damages ) and Adam Pascal ( Rent ), not to mention a surprisingly adept dramatic turn from Stacey Dash ( Clueless ), American Primitive is certain to be a popular film at this year's festival and a likely candidate for a theatrical distribution. But the film's real standout is 20-year-old star Danielle Savre, who should find more film work in her future.
Saturday, July 11, 9:30 p.m., Directors Guild Theater /Sunday, July 19, 5 p.m., Regency Fairfax Theatre
College Boys Live: What starts as a documentary about a gay porn website quickly devolves into an episode of Cops in this compelling and well-crafted film. Zac and Jonathan have built a healthy gay Web business. Their site features a group of young men who live in their house rent-free in exchange for having their entire lives taped. But as one might expect, the offer of room and board for the baring of one's soul and body attracts a very particular group of wounded individuals. The documentary chronicles the housemates' struggles with their neighbors and even follows a site viewer who admits to living his life around the comings and goings of these young men, but the film is ultimately about the lives of those on the inside. In this petri dish, with ingredients including alcohol, sex, and lost souls desperately yearning for a family, all hell breaks loose time and again. But the voyeurism of seeing the men and even of seeing the fights that break out is ultimately trumped by the film's look into the lives of gay youths still abandoned by their families, still coming from poverty, still living a far cry from the fantasy presented on the Web cameras.
Friday, July 10, 9:30 p.m., Directors Guild Theater /Monday, July 13, 9:30 p.m., Regency Fairfax Theatre
Dare: The sex life of the American teenager has gotten more sophisticated, but the films about that subject have not done a very good job of keeping up. Dare is a refreshing take on the mores of young people coming of age in the era of Gossip Girl, when being young means pretending to be much older and that includes a blasé attitude toward sex. But as the film shows, underneath that veneer are always very adolescent feelings of burgeoning sexuality, abandonment, and even young love. Alexa, played by Emmy Rossum, wants to lose her good girl image, so she ditches her best friend, Ben (Ashley Springer), who is just realizing he is gay, for the popular but troubled Johnny, played by Zach Gilford ( Friday Night Lights ). But the three end up forming an unlikely triangle, one that explores rather than defines the limits of their sexuality. Out screenwriter David Brind tells a clever but still very accessible and ultimately marketable story, and good performances from all, including guest stars Alan Cumming and Sandra Bernhard, make this a solid film.
Sunday, July 19, 8 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre
Drool: The press notes are calling this part Thelma & Louise and part Little Miss Sunshine, but this film is much stranger and more John Waters meets Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader. Laura Harring of Mulholland Dr. fame plays Anora, an abused housewife in the South who finds a friend and eventually a lover in her neighbor Imogene (Jill Marie Jones, Girlfriends ). After Anora's husband dies in a freak but nonetheless deserved accident, the two hit the road with Anora's two kids, her husband in the trunk, and nowhere to go. Drool is colorful and weird, and Jones's overly upbeat -- to the point of being scary -- performance contrasts nicely with Harring's almost deadpan approach. Original at every turn, the film always keeps you wondering what lies around the next curve.
Thursday, July 16, 7 p.m., Directors Guild Theater
Fruit Fly: With the resurgence of the musical genre in blockbusters like Hairspray and the forthcoming Footloose, it's nice to see an independent film doing it altogether better with a lot less money. Fruit Fly follows Bethesda, a performance artist who moves to San Francisco to do a show and to find out more about her real mother. She moves into a modern-day commune of other artists and learns how to have a family even if it is the one she makes. Along the way, she and the cast of characters sing -- about everything from love to the careful negotiation that goes on between two bottoms as they attempt to seduce each other at a gay bar. The music is inventive and catchy, the lyrics are real and still funny, and writer-director H.P. Mendoza manages to find fresh ways to film the performances without relying on classic musical conventions. Don't expect a three-act structure here -- this film is more performance art than anything else, ruminating on any idea it encounters and letting situations and characters rise and fall without the need for a tidy ending or the burden of a message. Fruit Fly will have you singing along and swallowing the sometimes-bitter pill of experimental filmmaking without you being any the wiser.
Saturday, July 11, 4 p.m., Directors Guild Theater
Ghosted: While lesbians will be drawn to obvious festival favorites like Hannah Free and And Then Came Lola this year, Ghosted should not to be forgotten. Out German director Monica Treut, who is well-known for her 1985 film Seduction: The Cruel Woman, returns to Taiwan, the site of her 2005 documentary Tigerwomen Grow Wings, for this tale of love lost and the spiritual mythology of the Taiwanese culture. Sophie (played with grace and charismatic subtlety by Inga Busch) is a Hamburg-based visual artist who is haunted by the unexplained death of her girlfriend Ai-ling, and when she goes to Taiwan to present her video installation art based on their relationship, she becomes involved with Mei Li, a journalist desperate to write about her. Treut creates a hypnotic trance in which the viewer can't help but feel as Sophie does: foggy with grief, uncertain where reality ends and where it begins again. A sexy and mesmerizing love story masquerading as a thriller.
Tuesday, July 14, 7 p.m., Laemmle Theatre Santa Monica /Sunday, July 19, 2:30 p.m., Directors Guild Theater
Mississippi Damned:Mississippi Damned, much more about the African-American experience than anything else, is one of the most solid films at the festival. Director Tina Mabry paints a picture of the life of poor Southern blacks in the 1980s, a life that starts out untarnished by the cycle of violence, absentee husbands, gambling, and crime, and shows us how it all unravels. Three sisters are raising children in proximity, relying on the close-knit family unit to bring them together. The film uses the lesbianism of one of the young women to show how the family bond is tested and stretched but never ultimately broken. The second half of the film takes place in the '90s and centers on the lesbian daughter's straight sister, who dreams of going to New York University to study music. These plot points are not the nexus of Mabry's story but merely the threads on which it hangs. The central story here is much more painful and real, as victims of abuse become abusers, poverty begets poverty, and hope is hard to come by. A beautiful and painful look at one aspect of the American experience.
Tuesday, July 14, 8 p.m., Directors Guild Theater
Patrik, Age 1.5: A story of adoption gone wrong, this Swedish comedy has already become a festival favorite, having won the audience award at this year's Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. Gay newlyweds Sven and Goran are all set up in the suburbs with an idyllic life, shot in almost surreal colors by director Ella Lemhagen. The only thing missing is a baby. However, when an error in the adoption process sends them a teenage delinquent instead of a baby boy, they are forced to examine both their motivations and what it really means to love someone unconditionally. Gustaf Skarsgard (son of Stellan Skarsgard) steals the film as Goran, but a strong script, other great performances, and a crisp, colorful look also make this movie worth seeing.
Wednesday, July 15, 8:30 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre
Pornography: It's hard to say just exactly what this film is about, and that is perhaps what makes Pornography so intriguing. In this remarkably dense film, first-time director David Kittredge, who is obviously inspired by the work of David Lynch, has really made three movies in one. The first "vignette," if you will, is about a gay porn star in the 1980s who is lured to meet with a mysterious and ultimately dangerous private client. The star's disappearance is the obsession of the second vignette's protagonist, a writer putting together a book on early gay pornography who finds himself supernaturally drawn into the story. The final part of the film revolves around a present-day gay porn star obsessed with re-creating the life and death of the missing star. The story lines all eventually intertwine in unclear ways, but that's what makes this film such a welcome addition to the festival. What are film festivals without experimentation? And whether you end up loving or hating Pornography, you won't forget its eerie imagery and out-on-a-ledge risk-taking.
Saturday, July 18, 9:45 p.m., Regency Fairfax Theatre
Prodigal Sons: This is the standout film of this year's festival. Directed by and starring newcomer Kimberly Reed, Prodigal Sons follows Reed as she returns to her hometown in Montana for her high school reunion, where she was once the all-American football player Paul. But this film is only partially about Reed's coming to terms with her transition. What unfolds is the remarkable story of her family that includes an older gay brother and adopted brother Marc in the middle; Marc has never completely regained his mental capacities after a terrible car accident, and in the search for his true identity discovers he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Reed documents every aspect of her time with her family, including emotionally and physically damaging fights as well as celebratory highs, and deftly weaves the two story lines of herself, desperately trying to forget her past and finding it self-destructive, and Marc, who cannot forget his past and move into the present, which is destroying him as well. With a smart distributor this film would have a shot at getting nominated for an Academy Award. Not to be missed.
Saturday, July 11, 7:15 p.m., Regency Fairfax Theatre /Saturday, July 18, 1 p.m., REDCAT Theater