At the Sundance Film Festival this year, I saw Armie Hammer kiss another man.
Not that that’s unique, given the setting. There’s no such thing as a queer cinema competition at Sundance. There are other categories: U.S. and international documentary and narrative features as well as short films, a virtual-reality showcase, midnight movies, and more. Yet year after year, there’s a striking subcategory of movies by and/or about LGBT people, rich new entrants in a 25-year tradition of queer movies making a distinctly politicized mark on the film festival circuit.
Their forebears, released in the ’90s, were films by directors like Derek Jarman, Kimberly Peirce, and Gus Van Sant, and peopled by actors the likes of Tilda Swinton. Back in 1992, the scholar B. Ruby Rich, writing in Sight & Sound magazine, called these adventurous early works the “New Queer Cinema.” The trend stuck, but the name hasn’t. Today, for better or worse, most of us simply call films of this stripe “movies.”
During the second week of Sundance, which ran from January 19 to 27, I woke up to the news that Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a Toronto Film Festival favorite, had received eight Oscar nominations. In 2015, Todd Haynes’s Carol debuted at Cannes and, like Moonlight, became the subject of awards chatter. Haynes is a festival veteran who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991 for Poison, sparking the further inclusion of queer cinema at the festival.
Festivals remain essential to the life of queer movies, as indicated by such films as the Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, the lesbian family drama The Kids Are All Right, the streetwise trans comedy Tangerine, and the British romantic drama Weekend. All have made serious headway into conversations about the meaning and role of queer cinema today. They are streaming on Netflix; they are available to everyone. And they were matched blow for blow — or, frankly, predated and lapped multiple times over — by queer stories on TV, from Will & Grace to Modern Family, Ellen, Looking, and Transparent.
For all of their differences, films like Carol, Moonlight, and The Kids Are All Right seem to have coalesced into a distinct lane. Critics and audiences complain about the death, or dearth, of “mid-budget movies for adults” — yet this is precisely what mainstream queer cinema, despite largely consisting of independent movies working outside Hollywood, seems to represent. As these films rise, so too do questions of representation, audience, and responsibility to a resilient community’s history. These are the same questions that faced Haynes and others in the ’90s, when the stakes of the debate were painfully high. The question then was whether it made sense to risk dark depictions of a community that was under continual political threat and had just been ravaged by AIDS.
Those issues remain relevant. We have a vice president with a history of antagonism toward LGBT rights, the continued encroachment of laws supposedly protecting religious freedom, the devastating Pulse massacre and all it portends, and the looming shutdown of George W. Bush’s AIDS relief program, PEPFAR. At least we have gay marriage? For now. It’s a different time. The concern then was advancement; the concern now is regression. How do we represent that in art?
At Sundance this year I saw two films that seemed to be avatars for the next iteration of the debate. One was Luca Guadagnino’s well-reviewed Call Me by Your Name, adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel about a love affair between a precocious Jewish teenager and the Jewish American graduate student, played by Hammer, boarding with the boy’s family in Italy for the summer. The other was Beach Rats, for which Eliza Hittman deservedly won a Sundance directing award for her sharp, psychologically overwhelming depiction of a closeted teenage boy from Brooklyn who lurks the internet for anonymous sex with older men.
Hittman’s movie faced pushback: Its festival Q&As were occasionally marked by audience discomfort at its depiction of queer life as a source of violence and shame. Guadagnino’s, on the other hand, was rightfully praised for its headlong dive into the warmth and affection between gay men and also the people who love them. These movies aren’t in conflict, and their respective merits as art needn’t prove contradictory. But their reception, and the reasons we find each valuable, might be.
The difference between queer movies throughout history is context. Queer cinema predates the ’90s, of course. You can find it going back as far as 1924, with Carl Dreyer’s bisexually inflected silent masterpiece Michael, or even 1919, with German director Richard Oswald’s Weimar Republic–era Different From the Others: We’ve been at this for a minute. But as late as the early ’90s, queer films trafficked gay film festivals and were not screened alongside the broader and increasingly mainstream fare you’d find at festivals like Sundance.
History has something to do with that. Nothing coalesces artists into a movement quite so forcefully or profoundly as the abrupt tides of political change. Queer cinema of the ’90s had the recent trauma of AIDS to contend with — among other things. Filmmakers of every race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality were making films that were as much about everyday queer life as they were about Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the death of Harvey Milk, the Stonewall riots, the biological and political ravages of disease, and so on — and they were debuting those films at places like Sundance. It would prove to be an avenue into the mainstream.
Today, an even wider range of filmmakers, working within studios and without, have been given the backing to pursue an even broader set of questions reflecting our current era. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, for example, takes for granted that its women stars, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, play a married couple. It’s not up for debate or discussion; it simply is (until one of them sleeps with a man). In both movie theaters and on television, these directors have been given a chance to pursue queer stories for the mainstream. Festivals like Sundance are essential to that story. Films debuting there could go on to get theatrical distribution and thus draw greater critical and audience attention than explicitly queer movies had seen before the ’90s. You could get a filmmaker like Gus Van Sant working with rising newcomers like Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. And a documentary like Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (which shared the Grand Jury Prize in documentary at Sundance in 1991) could find a broad audience.
Put in that context, Call Me by Your Name seems almost apolitical, to the extent that it’s possible for sexual attraction between people of the same gender to be so. Guadagnino has shown in his previous films (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) that he has a knack for giving his actors and the characters they play room to breathe. He may be our new Mike Nichols — that is, very much an actor’s director. Rarely have actors onscreen seemed so loose, improvisatory, and free as in Guadagnino’s films, which resonate, down to the breadth of their staging and the wildness of his actors’ dancey, fully embodied performances, with the same sense of freedom.
It’s a story about a 17-year-old boy named Elio, played with ostentatious vulnerability and spontaneity by newcomer Timothée Chalamet, who is amidst adolescent self-discovery. He’s on the verge of sleeping with a girl for the first time. But he’s also increasingly curious about the boarder Oliver, played by Hammer, who sleeps just across the way, in his old room, and seems unusually casual for a philosopher. (A running joke from the book is Oliver’s habit of saying “Later!” like a surfer. Hammer — tall, blond, casual — obviously nails it.) The men share a bathroom; they sometimes, accidentally, glimpse each other nude. It takes a while for them both to grow hip to their mutual attraction. But in the meantime, we see a stunning series of moments tracing Elio’s self-discovery. He sneaks into Oliver’s room, throws the man’s swim trunks over his head and crouches on his bed animalistically, grinding the air — all automatically, it seems, as if without thinking. The beauty of the movie, and of Chalamet’s performance, is that his blossoming sexuality unfolds naturally. Elio is toiling with something new and significant, and is certainly confused, but this is not a film about shame or self-torture. Their romance is a secret, but this is not a film about the closet.
Hittman’s film, on the other hand, tackles the queer shame Guadagnino’s outright avoids. The hero of Beach Rats, which is set in the present, is a teenager named Frankie (Harris Dickinson, in a stunning, hardened debut) who spends his days chilling, shirtless and tanned, with his crew on the outer edges of Brooklyn. They go to the beach, play handball, vape, wander around — rinse, recycle, repeat. Frankie has a father dying of cancer whose oxycodone he steals and a 13-year-old pubescent sister who’s seemingly more sexually confident than he is. The difference between the siblings is what they have in common: They both like boys. And Hittman smartly punctuates Beach Rats with moments of Frankie spotting his sister in the park with a boy, his face filled with — something. Jealousy? Or maybe it’s simply an intimate sense, when he sees a girl and a boy holding hands, of what he’ll never be.
Beach Rats, which was shot on 16mm film, risks reducing gay coming-of-age to seediness and shame. The movie opens with the muscled selfies Frankie takes for online profiles; much of its action involves finding sex, thinking about it, and having it. The hesitant reaction to the movie from older gay men at Sundance — especially compared to the immediate embrace of the warmhearted Call Me by Your Name — stood out to me at the festival. Guadagnino’s film is wonderful and, in fact, radical for exploring queer coming of age with the empathy and curiosity that it does. But it elides contexts that might have complicated the warmth of its morality. The film is set in 1982, and Oliver is American: His Reagan-era charm butts up against the newfound queerness of a man growing up in Europe. Worlds of context and subtext open up even there, but the film rushes past them. It treats their initial sexual encounters like well-earned consummations of desire — which, in a way, they are. But its brief gestures toward a broader, more dangerous world raise questions the movie knowingly does not answer. The movie is a safe space; I love it, but I’m not sure it ought to be.
Beach Rats is tougher, though of course not automatically better for being so. Frankie finds older men online and has sex with them in a motel and on the beach. When they ask what he’s “into,” he claims not to know. When they ask, as they’re webcamming, to see his face, he hesitates. The film ends with a violence I won’t give away — but suffice it to say that what emerges is the sense that the inner conflicts of identity might coalesce into tragedy. This was a secondary theme of Moonlight, too, but Beach Rats dwells on the question with a greater sense of irresolution, if not morality.
Call Me by Your Name is the kind of movie that attracts the praise that it’s “the movie we need right now,” a consumerist phrase often used to hype the political utility of art that has none: Watch this and you’ll know more, and feel better. Guadagnino’s film is better than that impulse, but it also plays to it slightly. Beach Rats, the better film, gets by on the strength of its perception, the new means Hittman comes up with to get at old questions given fresh social and technological contexts. Her sense of rhythm and movement and the clarity of her gaze hold Frankie under a microscope that reeks less of empathy than of curiosity and uncertainty. The movie isn’t about us; it’s about him. And this isn’t a kid who has it easy. Hittman depicts this conflict honestly.
Understandably, people want to feel good. People want — deserve — art that sees the beauty in their identity. Hence the admiration for Call Me by Your Name and the skepticism (though not, it should be said, among critics) toward Beach Rats. I’m grateful for both of these movies — but especially for Hittman’s film, which for all its discomfort and its sense of street-worn shame, moved me. Call Me by Your Name looks past history to find the beauty, and the glory, of gay identity. Beach Rats is an anchor. It reminds us to stay tethered to those corners of queer experience which, dwelling in the glory, we’ve trained ourselves not to see.