Frameline's 'I Killed My Mother' offers a willfully unsentimental view of its protagonist's sexuality.

Frameline34, a Festival Refreshed

Matt Sussman June 25, 2010

By and large, the consensus among the movie-goers, fellow film critics, and critically minded queer pals I've informally polled seems to be that Frameline34 has offered some of the festival's strongest programming in recent memory (full disclosure: I was on this year's shorts screening committee and contributed program notes to the festival's publications). Chalk it up to the fact that there are far fewer fluffy coming-out narratives or romcoms this year; or to the bumper crop of Showcase features by established and emerging international directors; or to the large portion of documentaries that speak relevantly to hot-button issues—military service, same sex marriage, body image—currently contested within the LGBT community, as well as those that retrace queer history. It's as if Frameline's audience threw down the challenge: "Show us something different." The festival has largely obliged.

My pet theory is that the burden of positive representation has largely shifted from film over to television. Those fluffy coming-out stories and romcoms are not only fodder for Logo's programming, but have worked their way into the plotlines of mainstream shows such as Glee, and are echoed in the real life success stories of Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. And while this "new normal" of media exposure is surely a sign of some kind of social progress, a film such as Xavier Dolan's mordantly funny I Killed My Mother (one of the aforementioned international Showcase features) is all the more refreshing precisely because it's so willfully unsentimental about its young protagonist's sexuality.

Being gay, and nominally closeted, is practically a secondary concern for young Hubert (played by Dolan), who is far more consumed by the incendiary hatred he feels towards his loving but certainly far from blameless mother (a wonderful Anne Dorval). Dolan isn't afraid to let Hubert seethe where most onscreen gay sons would offer teary-eyed apologetics, but this whiz (Dolan also wrote and directed the film) has also garnered enough wisdom in his 22 years to let Maman have her say as well; both are, by turns, sympathetic and reprehensible.

Therapeutic and entertaining, I Killed My Mother was a necessary reprieve from the mostly disappointing selection in this year's still-popular Fun in Boy's Shorts and Fun in Girl's Shorts programs screened earlier that Friday (talk about an overload of "positive representation"). It also set into relief just how unexpectedly disappointing The Owls, the previous night's centerpiece film, had been. Lauded as a return-to-form for Cheryl Dunye, whose 1996 debut The Watermelon Woman has become a classic of New Queer Cinema, The Owls was, if anything, a testament to the risks inherent to experimentation. Conceived and shot collectively, with the aim to blur the lines between cast and crew, documentary and narrative, this self-reflexive exploration of lesbian mid-life crises posing as a Behind the Music-style whodunit is really three movies in search of director, none of which are particularly compelling in their current, fragmented states.

On the other hand, two other returning directors, David Weissman and Bill Weber (their first doc The Cockettes played Frameline in 2001), delivered one of the most powerful entries at the festival. I know that great things are destined for We Were Here: Voices From the AIDS Years in San Francisco—their wrenching, tender and necessary look back at the darkest years of the AIDS crisis in SF—so I won't begrudge the powers that be for putting this almost-completed documentary on the "hold review" list. Suffice it to say, there wasn't a dry eye in the house at the Saturday matinee "sneak preview" at the Castro, packed with many of the same generation as the five frontline veterans testifying onscreen. It was simply one of the most moving experiences I've had at Frameline, and underscored why minority-oriented film festivals can be so important.

But for all the tributes to generations past (On These Shoulders We Stand, Stonewall Uprising); portraits of political trailblazers and cultural renegades as diverse as Angela Davis (Mountains That Take Wing) and William S. Burroughs (William S. Burroughs: A Man Within); and the by now almost de rigueur feting of the Warhol '60s (last year Joe Dallesandro received the honor, and this year Candy Darling was given her posthumous due, along with a mini-retrospective of Warhol's early films), this year's festival truly belongs to the young.

In addition to Mssr. Dolan, other Young Turks to watch out for are Marcelo Laffitte, whose rollicking Elvis & Madonna riveted a packed house with its transwoman–butch dyke romance; Jake Yuzna, whose commendable if uneven debut feature Open explores ever greater possibilities for queer love beyond gender identity or sexual orientation; and Javier Fuentes-León, who steers his tender ghost story Undertow with such a steady hand as to make you wonder why more romances—gay, straight, otherwise—can't make complexity look this easy. These filmmakers, along with others, such as the gender-variant firebrands raising a ruckus in the Riot Acts program of music-oriented shorts, are the ones who will tell the stories the LGBT community hasn't heard yet, or dared to imagine, or are afraid to tell but should. I only hope Frameline continues to give them a platform and leaves the coming-of-age boilerplate to cable.