Traps set by lovers playing hunting games in the forest. Tween caterpillars getting ready to bolt the cocoon. Young communards turning their backs on outdated moral strictures. Ghosts of high school obsessions past. And multiple packs of teenagers on the road and on the run. In this year’s Frameline Fest, as so often in life, it’s all about the one(s) that got away.
At least, that’s how it goes among the youth in revolt who populate such films as Night Fliers, Born in ’68, We Are the Mods, and a handful of others. Whether groping toward the next phase of life in the dim light of getting nailed for the first time, or grasping more desperately for an exit from an untenable situation, these characters all seem bent, so to speak, on escape, or at least leaving behind some early, unsatisfying version of themselves or the world around them.
Flight (or rather, the preflight preparations of early adolescence) makes a metaphor in the rough-around-the-edges Night Fliers, about a misfit, bug-collecting seventh-grader tentatively developing friendships, exploring a new habitat, and pondering gender ambiguity. And it steers what fragmented storyline exists in the trashy, rough-all-over Lollipop Generation, an episodic collection of adventures in Super-8/video home-movie aesthetics, in which teen runaways haunt playgrounds, turn tricks, suck on candy, and engage in sometimes-mortal combat with a pack of aggressively predatory skin-flick auteurs headed up by Vaginal Davis.
As evidenced by the latter production, not every film involving the young in this festival is your classic coming-of-age, coming-out story, but there’s some sort of basic impulse at work: to escape, to survive, to get on to the next and better phase of life or, in some cases, die trying. For Sadie (Melia Renee), the shy protagonist of E. E. Cassidy’s We Are the Mods, which does somewhat fit the above-described bill, it’s not so much out of the closet as into the darkroom and onto the Lambretta. Lured by a potent admixture of ’60s rock’n‘roll, mod aesthetics, and the unnerving charms of a classmate named Nico (Mary Elise Hayden) who spells "trouble" with a moderately sized "T," Sadie submits to a remodel and comes out the other side with a nice scooter, better threads, and some essential life experience.
That last is also on the agenda for two sides of the it’s-complicated triangle (or possibly rectangle) in Adam Salky’s Dare. Goaded by actor-playing-an-actor Alan Cumming, ambitious Alexa (Emmy Rossum)—bound for more of a Forever 21-style makeover—seeks life experience through deflowering, as does her BFF Ben (Ashley Springer), both, as it happens, at the hands of surly, simmering BMOC Johnny (Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford), who begins to seem like the one most in need of a flight plan. With its shifting focus and complicated picture of its characters’ sexual energies and motivations, particularly Johnny’s, Dare is only tangentially concerned with coming out. But as in a lot of teen-angst tales, and particularly queer ones, the prize dangled for surviving the toxic, deoxygenated aquarium of high school is the promise of getting out, via college, or the big city, or the wider world, into a larger body of water with more fish in it.
Of course, escape takes different forms, and some flight plans work out better than others. In two different films, a boy teaches another boy to float in water, offering a fraught, sensual lesson in survival tactics. But when people in the movies start hatching plans about running off together, as in John G. Young’s haunting, heartbreaking Rivers Wash Over Me, about a 15-year-old boy (Derrick L. Middleton) forced by his mother’s death into hostile and unsafe terrain, the odds don’t always favor all the coconspirators making it out in one piece, whether physically or psychically. It’s hard to say exactly who gets away and who gets left behind in David Oliveras’s less-restrained (and less successful) Watercolors, an examination of furtive, abortive high school romance between an unlikely pair; from the thinly constructed vantage point of the present day, both participants seem trapped in the past.
In the French film Born in ’68, codirected by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Cote d’Azur), lessons in combat, escape (or escapism), and survival are sketched out on a rather epic (nearly three-hour) canvas that attempts, with at times uneven results, to keep us caught up on the lives and loves and struggles of its protagonists over three decades and two generations. Jumping off in the tear-gas thick of the French student revolts and general strike of May 1968, the film soon drops out and heads to a commune in the countryside, where a gang of nudity-loving flower children take up residence in a wreck of a farmhouse, then proceed to dwindle through hard winters and changes of heart and the weakening of once-ardent ideals. The only one who manages to get away and stay there is Catherine (Laetitia Casta), who celebrates free love with Yves (Yannick Renier) and Hervé (Yann Trégouët) long enough to produce a son and a daughter who will stage their own battles against systems familial and social through the early days of AIDS and beyond. The one throughline is Catherine’s convictions, her belief in the commune, in a life apart, the world she has built in serene opposition to the one she walked away from.
It’s hard to say what the two young men headed into the forest in German director Jan Krüger’s transfixing, sensual tale Light Gradient are turning their backs on, or whether they’ll be back anytime soon: Johann (Sebastian Schle) and Robin (Eric Golub) are not, in fact, that far from freeways and fellow travelers, but at times the solid-enough manifestations of civilization feel like archaeological traces. The terrain seems to both contract and expand, containing just the two of them but all the strangeness of the natural world.
It looks like a cycling and camping trip between friends until a sweetly intimate gesture says it isn’t; then it looks like your garden-variety romantic weekend getaway until it really, really doesn’t. The forest seems to turn them both a little feral: an early sign they’ve slipped across some boundary line comes during a bout of opportunistic hunting that leaves two day-tripping cyclists sans lunch (their grasp of the etiquette around private property generally proves a little weak). But they’ve already shown an interest in the notion of flight and capture, of predator and prey, aspects they slip in and out of as if they’ve negotiated these roles before. And their unarticulated, slightly mysterious experience of each other is beautifully threaded into scenes of the landscape they travel through. This flight, eerie and fanciful, yet firmly planted in some recognizable version of reality, is a world away from the strategies of angst-ridden teenagers or idealistic young revolutionaries. But its mysteries are part of what makes Light Gradient so compelling, giving it a dreamy weight that remains on you post-viewing, leaving you wondering what you’ve just witnessed, unable to quite escape.
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