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Now in its 31st year, the organizers of Out on Film have achieved what they aim to do every time: “I say this a lot,” says festival director Jim Farmer, “but we always try to have a bigger festival than the one last year. And this definitely is.”

Kicking off September 27 and running through October 7, the festival’s first eight days are based at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. For the final three days, screenings and events will be split between the Plaza Theatre and Out Front Theatre. 

While sometimes a similar idea, tone or subject will emerge, arbitrarily, among unrelated films at a festival, Farmer says [full disclosure: Farmer is an ArtsATL contributor], “There really are no overt themes this year — it’s just a big slab of movies.” They include goofy comedies, documentaries, films dealing with religion and international titles. There’s also a horror-themed night for the first time and a staged reading of The Laramie Project. “We have 128 films, very diverse and very inclusive.” 

One thing I noted while previewing over a dozen of the films: Dykes, Camera, Action!, one of the festival’s many valuable documentaries, reminded me of how far we’ve come in onscreen representation. No longer do gay characters have to die or be punished by the end, a trope in films that featured LGBTQ figures during the 20th century. Luckily, we’ve also moved past the happily-ever-after phase, in which gay relationships onscreen absolutely had to end happily, preferably with a lavender-tinted wedding. 

That welcome change is evident in several of this year’s dramas, which end on mature, ambiguous notes. Gay and lesbian characters no longer have to be binary, either strictly heroes or villains. Like every other sort of human onscreen, they can now be seen making bad decisions due to social pressures (Mario) or falling deeply in love at a formative age with someone who just isn’t The One (My Best Friend). Oh, and in at least one of these movies, marriage to the wrong person can absolutely get you murdered. 

As usual, in addition to screenings, the festival will be peppered with personal appearances and Q&As with filmmakers and actors, so come prepared to ask good questions. 

I watched more Out On Film movies than in previous years — not because I had so much time on my hands, but because there were so many good ones. Here are my quick takes:

After Forever. A sweet, well-intended series of seven short episodes depicting the life of widower Brian (executive producer Kevin Spirtas) whose husband Jason (Atlantan Mitchell Anderson) died a year before. The subject of grief and recovery is somewhat muffled by some dramatic choices. Yes, the deathbed scene in the last episode is effective (hard to screw that up). But throughout, the deceased is depicted as an all-knowing, helpful, loving, chatty presence in Brian’s life. Anderson pops up in nearly every scene, advising his husband to get back into the dating world. That’s a cozy idea, but it’s the opposite of how grief works. Also, the show’s milieu — wealthy, white, mainly male gay New Yorkers — feels time-stamped circa 1999. 

Canary (Kanarie). In 1985 South Africa, 18-year-old Johan gets called up for his compulsory two-year military service. A talented musician, he lands a slot with the army’s goodwill-ambassador choral group, known as the Canaries. There he becomes close to two other young gay men — though none of them completely understand or act on their sexuality yet. Johan, in particular, retreats every time he comes close to acting on his desires. This fascinating, engaging film veers from drama to comedy to romance, and it’s also a semi-musical. If it has a problem (and this is a good thing), it may have too many ideas pinballing around. 

Dykes, Camera, Action! This documentary loses the thread a couple of times, veering into segments about activism and identity politics. But when it sticks to the main idea — telling the story of films about lesbians, especially those made not just about but by and for lesbians — it’s fascinating. It reminds us that, for much of film history, gay characters onscreen had to die or be punished for their sexuality (The Fox, The Killing of Sister George). Dykes charts the change to empowerment and celebration through films like Go Fish, High Art, The Kids Are All Right, Carol and others. If nothing else, it’s a great reference source for anyone who wants to know some of the terrific older films that they should see. 

Every Act of Life. If you like Terrence McNally’s plays (Love! Valour! Compassion!; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Master Class and a lot of the books for Broadway musicals), you’ll enjoy this documentary. Like the playwright, it’s wise, kind, amusing and more entertaining than deep. For theater lovers, the film is sparked by interviews with Broadway icons, from Audra McDonald to Angela Lansbury, Edie Falco to Christine Baranski. It’s an engaging film about one of Broadway’s busiest, nicest playwrights — and who knew he had a romance with another very famous, female playwright?

Good Manners. The tale of a wealthy Brazilian woman named Ana, pregnant after a blurry one-night stand in the countryside, who hires somber, quiet nurse Clara to come be a live-in housekeeper and nanny. Despite their social differences, the women inch into a relationship that’s marred by Ana’s habit of sleepwalking and drawing blood when she kisses. Let’s just say good manners go out the window when the baby is born, the full moon rises, and — some years later — we re-encounter Clara as a single mom to a sweet boy who has to be chained up a few nights each month. The slowly paced movie feels about half an hour too long, but it’s an adventurous genre-bender. 

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story. If there’s a fault with this affectionate documentary, it’s that it leaves you wanting more. The first superstar makeup artist, small-town Louisiana boy Aucoin was a big, swishy Southern stereotype — totally idolizing Barbra and Cher. He was fabulous in a very recognizable way, and he was always himself. In addition to his brilliance with makeup, that seems to be what drew celebrities to him — and it’s what makes the story’s final act so sad. When he was alone, addicted and needed the attention he had always bestowed on them, Aucoin discovered that the celebrities he adored really were as shallow and self-involved as everybody said. 

Man Made. The last act of this documentary takes place in Atlanta, at the site of the Trans FitCon Bodybuilding Competition, but local interest isn’t the only reason to watch. The film focuses on four trans men, in various phases of transition, as they pump up and train for the event. Their stories are engaging, eye-opening and sometimes melancholy, as in the case of subject Kennie’s girlfriend, a lesbian, who finds herself increasingly turned off as her partner strives to become exactly what doesn’t appeal to her: a self-described straight male. We see the adjustments other family members of the subjects go through, and throughout it all, director T Cooper’s film is uplifting in showing us the bravery of these emerging men. 

Mapplethorpe. It takes some effort to turn the story of New York City’s notorious bad boy of photography into something of a yawn, but this biopic pretty much manages. Still, it’s worth watching just for Matt Smith’s gangly, off-kilter performance in the title role — light years away from his performances in Doctor Who and The Crown. 

Mario. One of my favorites this year, the Swiss drama follows two young soccer players, Mario and Leon, on the field and off as they vie for a cherished position on the country’s top team. Oh, they also fall into bed together, fall in love, then try in very different ways to reconcile their feelings for each other with their ambitions to become star athletes in the homophobic sporting world. It’s a smart, sexy and heartbreaking drama that reminds us that coming out is very different for everyone. 

A Moment in the Reeds. Like last year’s God’s Own Country, this drama pitches two men from different countries onto a rural work site and into a charged romance. Here the men are a literature student returning from Paris to Finland to help renovate his widowed dad’s lake house, and a Syrian handyman, an architect back in his own country. Their skinny-dipping romance is challenged as much by anti-immigrant sentiment as by homophobia. Sexy, idyllic, bittersweet. 

My Best Friend. Living with his loving, liberal parents in Argentinian Patagonia, a sensitive high schooler named Lorenzo has to make way for the arrival of Caito, a troublemaking son of his dad’s best friend who’s only a year older. Lorenzo takes on the responsibility of keeping Caito in line and getting him to open up about his troubles. In the process, both boys bond, but their friendship can only go so far. The movie is a smart, aching look at the ways young people can fall in love, even when they know the object of their affection doesn’t feel the same way. 

1985. It feels like it could have been made in that year. That’s both a good and bad thing. Shot in black and white, the film stars Cory Michael Smith as Adrian, a young ad exec living in New York who comes home to Texas for Christmas after years away, reconnecting with his devout Christian parents (Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen) and kid brother. Adrian is sensitive and skinny, and he has a secret we can guess pretty quickly. The movie doesn’t hold any surprises, though it’s a useful reminder for younger members of the LGBTQ community who don’t know what a scary, sad time the 1980s were. And though I was feeling so-so about the movie, I was ambushed by the emotional power of its final scenes. 

Studio 54. This documentary can give you a contact hangover, and that’s not the worst thing. A deep dive into the three-year, drug-fueled insanity of the nightclub cofounded in 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager (the living, main focus of the film), it’s a reminder of that brief, frantic bubble between the invention of the pill and the advent of AIDS. It was the big, final party before the funerals to follow. Rubell and Schrager — after reemerging from prison for tax evasion — would come to personify the 1980s. One grew sick and died young; the other rebuilt himself as a flashy entrepreneur. The heart of the movie is the men’s partnership, one gay, one straight, but a powerful, if reckless, team.

What Keeps You Alive. Will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s hard to write much about this one without giving things away, so I’ll just say this about the Canadian shocker: Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen play a couple who travel to an isolated lake house to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary. And things go very, very badly. The movie may have a couple of twists and logical lapses too many, but that’s a minor drawback. Fair warning: If you’re not a fan of nail-biting, bloody suspense, this thrill ride isn’t for you. 

When the Beat Drops. The festival’s opening-night film, largely set in Atlanta, this documentary focuses on Anthony Davis, a very large man whose quick dance moves belie his size. He’s the choreographer and den mother of Phi Phi, a local group competitively practicing what’s known as J-Setting. (Think of voguing, a la Paris Is Burning and Pose, but inject it with the butt-popping moves derived from Jacksonville State’s cheerleaders, the Prancing J-Settes.) The movie could benefit from a stronger structure, but as we follow these guys — and learn their stories — as they prepare to compete in Detroit, it’s an engaging ride.

Wild Nights with Emily. While many critics swooned over A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, I found Terence Davies’ 2016 film a pretentious bore. Taking itself far less seriously, and seriously much more interesting, Wild Nights gives us Molly Shannon (who proved her dramatic chops in Other People) as the Belle of Amherst — but not the sexless waif history has portrayed. Au contraire, the movie playfully but convincingly gives us a poet whose cryptic lines were largely inspired by her longtime love affair with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler). Shifting fluidly from comic romp to serious drama, Nights resuscitates Dickinson from the cobwebbed, sexless mythology that we see, at the movie’s end, her prudish literary executives invented for her after her death.

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