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"Audience members often tell me how much an Outfest film has changed them," says Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of the world's premier LGBT film festival. She shouldn't expect that to change anytime soon. There's definitely something for everyone's cinematic palate this year -- from already-acclaimed documentaries about seminal cultural figures such as historian-activist Vito Russo and pioneering openly gay musician Jobriath to the provocative erotic drama I Want Your Love. As always, part of the appeal of a film festival is the discovery of fresh new talent. Festival programmers have spotlighted a handful of these individuals with their Five in Focus selection, which includes Young & Wild star Alicia Luz Rodriguez, Joshua Tree 1951 cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah, Gayby actor Matthew Wilkas, My Brother the Devil writer-director Sally El Hosaini, and Wildness filmmaker Wu Tsang. Another feature to keep an eye has a screenplay from a first-time screenwriter you will recognize as one of your favorite television stars -- Chris Colfer's teen comedy Struck by Lightning will close the festival on July 22.
To make opening night especially memorable, Ricki Lake will present the Outfest Achievement Award to her Hairspray director, John Waters, the maverick filmmaker who's corrupted the imaginations of several generations of moviegoers with his endearingly demented body of work that includes Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, Cry-Baby, and Serial Mom. As an added bonus sing-along version of the musical remake of Hairspray will be screened later in the festival. On the following pages you'll find our choices for some of this year's don't-miss movies. Outfest 2012: The 30th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival takes place through July 22 at the DGA Theatre, REDCAT, Sunset 5, and other venues in L.A. For tickets or more information, go to Outfest.org.
Any Day Now
A gripping story of an unusual family forming in 1970s Los Angeles, with a drag performer (Alan Cumming) and a closeted prosecuting attorney (Garret Dillahunt) falling in love with each other and then seeking to adopt an abandoned boy with Down syndrome. Despite the gay-themed storyline, director Travis Fine sees his film as relevant for all audiences. "After having experienced an incredibly painful loss with my oldest child," he recalls, "I realized in a very deep and personal way that, while the film I wanted to make was specifically about a gay struggle, this is a story that can be felt and understood by anyone who has had someone they love taken from them." Fine's drama won the Audience Award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. July 21, 11:30 p.m., Directors Guild of America.
Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean
Be prepared to swoon. Shot in glorious black-and-white, this might be Outfest 2012's most ravishing film (special kudos to cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah). This look at an early period in the life of the late screen icon is also one of the most compelling films in this year's lineup, but don't confuse it with the 2001 telefilm that helped launch James Franco's career. "I think audiences should know that our film has very little in common with any other film that has ever been made about James Dean," says director Matthew Mishory. "It is not a biopic or even a conventional, by-the-numbers biographical movie in form or structure. JT1951 is a portrait, a moment in, or perhaps outside of, time. James Dean was not a conventional movie star, and we didn't want to make a conventional movie about him. The language of our film is not the language of conventional Hollywood filmmaking; it is the language of memories and dreams. That is how James Dean lives on: in our collective cinematic memory and in our celluloid dreams." July 16, 9:45 p.m., DGA.
In director Dino Dinco's rarity of a documentary, gay Latino former gang members (some former convicts as well) talk easily about subjects including cultural machismo, coming out, and their struggle for acceptance (both internal and familial). The personal accounts of several men, most of them heavily tattooed and hyper-masculine, goes into what gang life meant to them, the violence that has shrouded their lives in Los Angeles, ways in which gay and Latino culture intersects for them, and, compellingly, what their first time with another young man was like.
"The first time I had sex with another man was on my 21st birthday," says Marco in the film, talking about his first same-sex encounter. "I was drunk at a little party and this very attractive guy took me into a room and went down on me. The experience was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was the best ever. When I sobered up, I thought, Hell, no, that didn't happen, and blocked the memory of it out for a year and came out a year afterwards."
The boys are frank and sometimes graphic (don't take Mom to it if you've just come out to her last week), but that makes it feel real, like a conversation at your local hangout (or barrio, as the case may be). As a bonus, the film also weaves in interviews with Chicano gang expert Luis J. Rodriquez, who authored the best-selling memoir Always Running: Mi Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. July 14, 4:30 p.m., REDCAT.
Young & Wild
The festival's International Centerpiece, this Chilean film details the tribulations of highly sexed 17-year-old Daniela, who vents her passions on her blog (called Young & Wild), but offline must deal with her repressive evangelical Christian family, her handsome but devout boyfriend, and her growing attraction to a female coworker. Marialy Rivas directs; it's her first feature. July 17, 7 p.m., DGA.
Director Ash Christian's quirky comedy brings us a family of eccentrics headed by stoner mom Felicia (Christine Lahti). Gay son Charlie (Tobias Segal) is pursuing celibacy, but an attractive neighbor (Michael Urie) may offer a more appealing pursuit. The cast also includes Thora Birch and Brittany Snow. "Petunia is a film about family and, ultimately, love -- in all the many ways it exists," says Christian. "It was inspired by the rise and fall of my first love ... which I think is something most audiences can relate to." July 14, 1:30 p.m., DGA.
Loving Annabelle director Katherine Brooks should have had it all: sex appeal, great career, endless possibilities. Instead she landed in the hospital having life-changing surgery, and after realizing she hadn't had a visitor (let alone a hug) in a month -- even though she had reached the 5,000-friend max on Facebook -- she tried to kill herself. She lived but gained a higher purpose: to connect with 50 of her Facebook friends and conduct an experiment on human interaction in the age of technology. What it turned out to be, though, is Brooks's own Easy Rider -- her journey of self-discovery across the U.S., often by seeing her reflection in the lives of the people she knew very little about until this journey. She dreams that it will change viewers, too: "My hope is that after seeing Face2Face," Brooks tells us, "viewers will be inspired to connect more through human interaction than social media." July 14, 2 p.m., Harmony Gold.
Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) directs two Oscar-winners, Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, who have excellent screen chemistry as a long-term but still passionate lesbian couple on a road trip from Maine to Nova Scotia to get married. You'll root for this latter-day Thelma and Louise to have a happy ending to their journey, on which they pick up a handsome gay male hitchhiker and encounter various other complications. July 21, 8:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.
I Stand Corrected
Surely one of the best documentaries at Outfest this year -- and certainly director Andrea Meyerson's finest -- I Stand Corrected gets up close and personal with Jennifer Leitham, the transgender bass player whose unusual technique and extraordinary talent made her one of the most recognizable musicians in the jazz world. But she didn't spend her entire career as Jennifer; when she began performing decades ago she was known as John Leitham, but after a lifetime of hiding her female identity at home in order to seek musical fame, Leitham couldn't take it anymore. She risked it all to start living life as the woman she always knew she was, and she found some unlikely allies, including Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinsen, who told her he hired a bass player, not a man or a woman, which gave her permission to be herself. Meyerson met Leitham accidentally but was immediately intrigued by her music more so than her transition. "At that time, all the documentaries I had seen about transgender people were about the transition -- the angst, the family, the partner, the doctor visits," Meyerson recalls. "I loved that Jennifer was living her life as she was meant to and was so positive and happy. I was really taken with her talent as a musician and her beautiful spirit as a person and felt we could really create an uplifting film that would both enlighten and entertain people." That it does. July 16, 7 p.m., Harmony Gold.
To bring to life the relentlessly compelling story of Jobriath, one of music's most underappreciated gay pioneers, filmmaker Kieran Turner uses glorious animation and fascinating archival footage. "Jobriath was brave enough to proclaim himself 'The true fairy of rock and roll" at a time when it was career suicide to do so," says Turner. "He's one of our forgotten icons, and I made Jobriath A.D. because I wanted the world to know that he mattered." Arrive early to catch Ann Magnuson's tribute to Jobriath and David Bowie. July 20, 10 p.m., REDCAT.
Mississippi I Am/A Force of Nature
This double feature of short documentaries showcases LGBT activists outside the usual LGBT comfort zones. Mississippi I Am (above) features singer Lance Bass and less famous Mississippians determined to fight for gay rights and visibility in the conservative state. It's directed by Katherine Linton and. Harriet Hirshorn. In A Force of Nature (below), Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream) profiles Ellen Ratner, a progressive lesbian who often deals with right-wingers in her work as a journalist and braves the violence of South Sudan to carry out her humanitarian efforts. July 14, 11:30 a.m., DGA.
The aesthetically pleasing cast, which includes Booboo Stewart from the Twilight films, Glee's Harry Shum Jr., and Teen Wolf's Tyler Posey, doesn't overwhelm the moving story of a young boy with Asperger's syndrome finding the strength he needs to survive a family tragedy. Director Quentin Lee, who returns to Outfest for the third time, sums up the theme simply. "While we may all be all different, our need for emotional connection is universal," he says. July 20, 2 p.m., DGA.
Satan's Angel: Queen of the Fire Tassels
Surely a worthy piece of lesbian history, Satan's Angel is director Joshua Dragotta's delightfully fascinating look at lesbian burlesque star Satan's Angel, a ribald bad girl who has been setting nightclubs ablaze with her legendary flaming tassel act from the early 1960s to today. Now 68, Angel Walker is a tough old broad (who, I might add, still brings in thousands of fans to her shows to watch her swing titty tassels that are literally on fire -- a patented move only she and a few Walker-trained queer girl burlesquers can do today). The documentary goes through Walker's rebellious childhood and her affairs with both women and men (including movie stars she dated and men she married even though she was an out lesbian from her teen years on) to her most recent long-term relationship, with a devoted adoring butch gal named Vic. "Her openness and honesty granted her a lifetime of amazing and adventurous experiences," says Dragotta. Both a look at one pioneer and brief glimpse at the vast history of burlesque (a performance movement that's been reinvented in recent years by queer performers) -- all with a dose of campy goodness -- Satan's Angel is sure to be a crowd pleaser for all (adult) audiences. July 15, 6:30 p.m., REDCAT.