When I enter a theater to see a film about anything remotely queer, I go in with certain – cynical – expectations of how the film will address the subject matter of the queer experience. My fears stem from the fact that these films are often one or more of the following: underfunded and badly produced; exploitative, stereotypical, or non-complex; focused on how queerness affects those who are not; or full of the usual, depressing tropes of queer cinema.
At the 45th Telluride Film Festival, two recent films with LGBTQ+ subject matter were screened: “Boy Erased” (2018), written and directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from the memoir by Garrard Conley, and “Girl” (2018), the first feature film from Belgian director Lukas Dhont. “Boy Erased” follows Jared (Lucas Hedges), an 18-year-old gay boy whose devoutly religious parents send him to conversion therapy in the hopes that it will “fix” him. “Girl” follows Lara (Victor Polster), a 15-year-old trans girl as she begins both hormone therapy and training at an ultra-competitive ballet school.
Neither film was underfunded or badly produced. “Boy Erased” was somewhat lacking in any sort of visual expressiveness; the cinematography was proficient, but did not seem to add any narrative depth. It made up for this, however, in its careful and intimate writing of the family it follows. “Boy Erased,” featuring A-list actors such as Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, will have a wide theatrical release in the US on November 16th and is already slated as an Oscar contender.
“Girl,” a Belgian film, was more interesting cinematographically for its use of long-take, handheld camera work and muted color scheme. It won the most awards of any film at the Cannes Film Festival in France this year (four, including the prestigious Camera D’Or, for best first feature film). Though its streaming rights were purchased by Netflix and it’s slated to be an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film, the possibility for a US theatrical release is still uncertain.
Both films are based on true stories, a memoir in the case of “Boy Erased” and a personal friendship in the case of “Girl.” Both tell similar coming-of-age stories that capture the internalized homophobia that so many young queer kids experience, as well as their hopes, dreams and relationships that are made difficult because of the expectations they are confronted with. “Girl” does this by focusing on Lara’s emotional and physical journey through hormone therapy and her grueling ballet training. It becomes difficult for Lara to distinguish between her goals of achieving the femininity embodied by a professional ballerina and her own idea of what a girl should look like.
Jared’s journey is about reconciling his sexuality and his religious beliefs – for him, one trait does not exist without the other. Throughout the film, he does not reject his religion, even as he deals with his sexuality and familial tension after coming out. Though Jared’s story focuses more on his family’s dynamic after he comes out, it feels justified given how important family is to him. The film is not about how Jared’s queerness affects his parents’ lives, but about how actions borne out of love, even when well-intended, can be incredibly harmful. In fact, this is captured so well that I could hear my own conversations with my own parents in the film. Yet this does not detract from Jared’s individuality.
On the other hand, Lukas Dhont wanted “Girl” to be free of moral condemnation and outside conflict, as he and the friend the film is based on both had supportive families when they came out. This is reflected in Lara’s relationship with her father, who never once undermines her gender the medical procedures she chooses to pursue. Like Jared’s, her story is completely her own.
Both films navigate the queer experience quite well. Neither film “buries its gays” or presents the character as promiscuous or odd. Both films address difficult aspects of the queer experience while painting a hopeful future for both characters at the end. Arguably, the films have their issues – some may argue that the casting of a cisgender actor to play Lara is reinforcing the current issue of trans representation, or that the sympathetic view of Victor Sykes, the director of the conversion therapy program Jared attends, is misguided.
Yet in both cases, I think that the creators of each film had these things in mind as they made “Boy Erased” and “Girl.” Even though “Girl” was cast without gender in mind, the subject matter of the film prompted Lukas Dhont to cast a cisgender actor so as not to subject a trans actress to such personal and sensitive material. Additionally, Joel Edgerton hopes that “Boy Erased” will be able to reach people like Victor Sykes and lead to an end in conversion therapy across the US.
It’s fantastic to see two filmmakers so invested in queer cinema and activism. Though neither film displays a Hollywood rom-com level of happiness like “Love, Simon,” they aren’t gratuitously sad. In fact, they are so eloquently written and performed, so empathetic to the characters and community they are representing, that I think these films represent a hopeful future for queer cinema.