"Everybody here is beautiful," says Jim Dobson (no, not the fiendish Jim Dobson of Focus on the Family; the perfectly charming Jim Dobson who's publicist for the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival). I've flown in from Los Angeles to cover the closing weekend. Maneuvering his rented Durango through the crawling Friday rush hour traffic out of Miami International Airport, Jim's giving me the lowdown. "Everybody's beautiful and they wear practically no clothes. You'll see."He's not kidding. Cruising along Collins Avenue, I see enough skin--and enough bling--to sear my retinas. Things are hopping more than usual because the Billboard Latin Music Awards were last night. Not just the Latin stars but the hip-hop aristocracy is here. Black Escalades and Suburbans roll by, delivering earth-shaking explosions of bass. Rented scooters zigzag through traffic, piloted by brown, barefoot women in sherbet-colored bikinis. Everything's more vivid. Everywhere Spanish, everywhere sequins, everywhere spike heels and sarongs and muscle shirts and everybody holding hands.The National Hotel, the famous deco edifice where we're staying, dates back to 1939. You expect Claudette Colbert to come tripping down the steps. The lobby leads back to lazy fans on the veranda. Tropical greenery lines a long lap pool dotted with zonked guests adrift on white floats. Then comes the swimming pool proper, ringed by hammocks and gurgling into a waterfall and beyond all that, the white beach and the green Atlantic breakers. I mean, really.Now in its seventh year, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival assuredly takes some of its glamour from its surroundings. But the films I saw were also pretty easy on the eyes. In fact, during closing weekend I saw not one but several entries that moved me and stay with me now.Saturday noonish, my festivities begin with a filmmakers' brunch poolside at the National. Fest programmer Carol Coombes--with her trademark cherry-red hair and sharp eye for film--mixes and mingles along with festival entrants like Katherine Duthie, down from Vancouver with her documentary 100% Woman, about a competitive mountain biker whose physical strength as a transwoman has stirred controversy. David Young, here from Boston with his short film "Freud Slips," reminisces about being a young pup on the set of Sesame Street. A posse from 29th and Gay, directed by Carrie Preston (the best thing in last year's Straight-Jacket) is on hand. Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, the director of Hellbent, the gay slasher movie that screened last night, has painted one toenail bright blue. By the time I leave, every gay boy present will have followed suit.At 3 p.m., I walk down the bustling promenade of Lincoln Road to the Regal Cinemas, where Nicole Conn's documentary Little Man turns out to be riveting. It's the story of Nicholas, Conn's son with partner Gwen Baba, born 100 days premature. We see him from the start, his tiny, baby bird-like form sequestered in his incubator at the NICU (Natal Intensive Care Unit) at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Nobody except Conn thought this child would--or, perhaps, should--survive. He'd be so impaired, his systems so undeveloped, he'd have no shot at an acceptable quality of life. The story that follows is both fascinating and heartbreaking, and it marks a clean and altogether surprising departure from the work of the young Nicole Conn who made Claire of the Moon.As the sun goes down on Saturday evening, I hitch a ride to Fort Lauderdale, where ongoing festival entries are screening in a cozy little movie house in a converted church. (It's called Cinema Paradiso, which inclines me to believe Carol Coombes when she says that Fort Lauderdale and surrounding Broward County are the fastest-growing gay areas in the country.)
Michelle Bonilla, Caren Block, Anne Stockwell,
and Liz Lachman at filmmakers' brunch
Hopping into the festival van, I introduce myself and realize I'm talking to Amber Benson, the unjustly murdered Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's sitting in the back with Cole Williams and Russell Brown--her leading man and director, respectively, in tonight's opening feature. During a hilarious ride, the straight-but-polar-opposite-of-narrow Amber regales us with behind-the-scenes Buffy stories. Lesbian fun fact: In order to get Willow and Tara's unprecedented love scenes on the air, Benson, costar Alyson Hannigan, and series creator Joss Whedon submitted such carnal clinches that the horrified censors willingly went with the footage we saw. Food for thought, no?It's doubly fun afterward to see my new friends Cole and Amber in Russell's film, Race You to the Bottom: Both actors hit their marks as a bi guy and a hetero girl swept up in an affair in Northern California's wine country. The movie is a smart window on a new world of romantic complications. Where old-world queers were traumatized by the thought of an either/or coming out, young queers with fluid sexual boundaries are up against a whole new set of dilemmas.Next up is the women's shorts program--an experience that any gay festival veteran approaches with caution. But this time I'm pleasantly surprised, especially by the two heavy hitters that cap the program. From Boston, "Everything Good" follows a long-bed-dead lesbian who, finding herself alone in Amsterdam, works up the courage to phone a call girl. Written by Caren Block and produced by Block and Paula Dowd--both first-timers--the story's got lots of heart as well as a healthy dash of salt. Finally, L.A.'s hip lesbian community gets a hilarious once-over in Liz Lachman's "Getting to Know You," a totally-ready-for-prime-time comedy about the romantic misadventures of an Angelena cartoonist (the captivating Elizabeth Keener, sister of Catherine) in search of her dream girl (gorgeous ER paramedic Michelle C. Bonilla).Afterward there's a lesbian bacchanalia at the local club Elements--and the last I see of her, the fabulous Amber Benson is headed off into the fray, on a matchmaking mission for a lovelorn lesbian buddy.Sunday is cloudy, with an ominous wind that whips up the surf and tears The New York Times out of my hand. I like it even better than the sunshine. It's midafternoon before I abandon the beach for a screening of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, a work-in-progress adaptation of lesbian pioneer May Sarton's most famous novel.And then it's on to the closing night feature, Adam & Steve, written and directed by out actor Craig Chester. Chester stars along with tall, blond, and handsome Malcolm Gets in a warm--and often hysterically funny--comedy about two decent guys who endure some really humiliating complications on the way to love. They're expertly supported by an ensemble including Parker Posey, Chris Kattan, Julie Hagerty, Jackie Beat, and Sally Kirkland, among other veteran comedy hands. The film plays hugely well here, and it's hard to imagine its not doing business in multiplexes too. Afterward, Chester and Gets take the stage and bask in an endless ovation. "Two out gay actors playing gay lovers! What a concept!" cracks Gets.As the closing night gala gets under way at the nearby Bass Museum of Art, festivalgoers already know who's won the jury prizes, funded by HBO: Best Documentary went to The Education of Shelby Knox, about a Texas high-school girl who defies her hidebound community and gets involved with a gay-straight alliance. Best Feature was nabbed by Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki's brutal yet lyrical adaptation of Scott Heim's novel on pedophilia and its consequences.But the suspense is still on about the audience awards. By the time the ballots are tallied, the food has given out and the crowd's on liquid nourishment.First comes the best short award, which goes to "Getting to Know You"--a huge validation for crowd-pleasing first-time filmmaker Liz Lachman and her L.A. posse.Now, waiting for the final audience award, the buzz in the crowd is all about Adam & Steve. But when the announcement comes, the audience award for best feature goes to Little Man.Nicole Conn and producing partner Danny Jacobsen are incredulous, jumping up and down, trading rib-crushing hugs. Their elation is impossible to resist. Much as they loved Adam & Steve, onlookers are happy to celebrate with Little Man. What accounted for the upset? Maybe, as somebody remarks, it's that lesbian audiences take the voting more seriously than the men. Or maybe it's just a cosmic high-five to baby Nicholas, who's now 3 years old, and his indefatigable moms.