Celine Sciamma's tender and bittersweet 'Tomboy' offers a view of childhood.

Critic's Notebook: Frameline at 35 Still Finds Youth a Focus

Matt Sussman June 25, 2011

It's hard to think of another point in time when LGBTIQQ youth have been so visible across media, for better and for worse. Thousands of young male and female fans watch Kurt Hummel, the openly gay teen on Glee played by Chris Colfer, even as elsewhere on the hit show's network, conservative pundits try to downplay the problem of anti-queer bullying and rail against the evils of same-sex marriage. And of course, there is the It Gets Better Project, an unprecedented outpouring of direct address aimed at queer youth that has outgrown YouTube and to some degree–with each successive PSA from a politician, sports team, celebrity and corporation—its original target audience.

So, when I wrote last year that Frameline34, “truly belongs to the young,” my estimation might have been premature. It is especially fitting then that at this year's San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival three of the showcase features—Spork, Mangus! and Tomboy, along with opening night selection Gun Hill Road all centered around the lives of young folk. Each of these films eschews the more egregious clichés that have glommed on to that perennial favorite of LGBT film festivals, the coming of age narrative, by shifting the drama from coming out to the more complicated art of getting by.

Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road is perhaps the most familiar of the bunch. After three years in prison, Enrique Michael Rodriguez (Esai Morales) returns home to the Bronx to make a second go of it with his estranged wife Angela (Judy Reyes) and teenage son Michael (Harmony Santana), who has started living more and more as the lip gloss-and-denim-cut-off-wearing, poetry-slamming Vanessa. It's only a matter of time before Enrique discovers that he has gained a daughter, but the resulting fallout and deux ex machina parole violation with which Green ends his screenplay don't allow for much emotional growth. Angela, although sympathetic to her son's transition, is also underwritten.

What the film gets right is Michael/Vanessa, thanks in no small part to Santana's breakout performance, which hits all the right adolescent notes of newly acquired confidence and deep-rooted vulnerability. Even if his parents are freaking out, it's clear that Michael has already come to terms with his identity, and as Vanessa, knows what she wants and how to get it. She hangs out in public with her friends, goes out to clubs, explores sex with a boy, is learning her way around makeup, and has body image issues. She is, in other words, a typical teenage girl, and it is to Green's credit that his film doesn't qualify the ordinariness of Vanessa's day-to-day life even as it graphically portrays how trapped she feels in the body she was born with.

Celine Sciamma's tender and bittersweet Tomboy, playing Friday at the Castro, is something of a companion piece to Gun Hill Road. With her short hair, freckles and penchant for loose-fitting clothing, 10- year-old Laure (a very brave Zoe Heran) could easily be mistaken for a boy, a perception she doesn't challenge when she makes friends with a bunch of the other kids in the suburban apartment complex her family has just moved to over the summer. Going by Mikael, she soon attracts the attention of Lisa, also ten, who whispers to her new best friend truer than she knows, “you're different from the others.”

Sciamma's focus is on childhood (the film's best scenes are those in which she watches her young cast simply do what comes naturally to them), both as the crucible of emotions in which we rehearse our first stabs at independence, identity-formation and romance and as a kind of play-filled paradise before the inevitable Fall brought upon by puberty. Because of her age and build, Laure can pass as Mikael even when she's shirtless and swimming with the gang (she even packs a Play-Doh prosthesis in her modified swimsuit for good measure). But she need only look at the near-busting fullness of her very pregnant stay-at-home mother to see what's coming in a few years.

But, as many of this year's trans-focused films remind us, biology is certainly not destiny. At least that is one take-away from Spork, J.B. Ghuman, Jr.'s potty-mouthed musical comedy about its titular intersex heroine going from class zero to middle school hero in 90 ADD-addled minutes. An uneasy pastiche of racial stereotypes, Willow Smith and Lil Mama music videos, and overly clever production design, Spork retains enough focus to tell a shopworn story familiar enough to anyone who has seen Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite (lots of swearing, quirky supporting characters and a climactic dance-off: guess how it ends?).

For all of its visual flash and scripted sassiness—the kids styled as if they were on Saved by the Bell; pre-teens shaking their behinds to Miami bass classics; dialogue that would make Chris Rock blush—Spork never adds up to anything coherent. Its message of self-acceptance rings hollow when so much in the film is artifice and so many of its laughs feel forced. This is less the case in Mangus!, another campy musical about a stage-struck underdog, which plays Saturday. Director Ash Christian (Fat Girls) paints this dirty comedy about Broadway triumphing over the Bible Belt deep in the heart of Texas with broad and bawdy strokes, but at least he has a controlled hand (the supporting turns of Jennifer Coolidge, Heather Matarazzo and John Waters also certainly help).

What's most heartening about these films is that festivals aren't the only places paying attention to them. Gun Hill Road picked up a distribution deal when it screened at Sundance at the beginning of the year and will his theaters this summer, and Tomboy will also see a theatrical release later this year. As LGBTIQQ youth continue to be talked about, and continue, via outlets such as the It Gets Better Project, to tell their own stories, I expect there will be a greater opportunity for them to see more, and more accurate, representations that actually reflect the reality of their experiences. Frameline35's selection certainly offers hope in this regard.