The best films from London’s LGBT film festival

We checked out the best in show at BFI Flare, stories about being impregnated with rats, sexual tension in swimming pools and forbidden love

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Closet Monster
Closet Monster

Last week, BFI Flare’s packed screenings coincided with Disney, Marvel and other studios threatening to boycott Georgia if the state passes anti-gay legislation, a proposal that goes to show how art still speaks up and fights valiantly for LGBT issues. The topicality certainly added resonance to BFI Flare, now in its 30th year (after changing its name from London’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2012), and once again it programmed a dynamic range of features, shorts and docs. From the opening gala’s The Pass to the closing night’s Summertime, these are the five best films we caught at the festival.

CLOSET MONSTER

Come for the wisdom-spouting hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini, stay for a poignant coming-of-ager that visualises adolescent anxiety with vivid body horror. In Stephen Dunn’s directorial debut, the garrulous rodent is only heard by Oscar (Connor Jessup), a gay teen preoccupied with disguising his sexuality from a bully father (Aaron Abrams) and a pressing internal issue – specifically, a Cronenbergian bulge protruding from his stomach.

Though the logline sounds like a nonstop quirk-fest, it’s really a character study that rewards with unpredictable swerves. A pattern emerges of Oscar’s proclivity for escapism, whether it’s popping pills with non-judgemental partygoers, or applying for film school to specialise in SFX makeup (perhaps a metaphor too far). As for the hamster, it’s repeatedly died and been replaced, sometimes changing gender, without Oscar noticing; as long as it sounds like Rossellini, he’s happy (and so are we). Furthermore, it inspires Oscar to kick down a few doors – with or without the talking pet, it’s exhilarating.

THE PASS

Ben A. Williams’ smart adaptation of John Donnell’s play tackles a pertinent question: why has no Premier League footballer ever come out? The answer, so often chanted from terraces, sadly requires no explanation. The night before an away match, teammates Jason (Russell Tovey, terrific) and Ade (Arinze Kene) share a tender kiss they know will never leave the hotel room. Therein lies the film’s strength and core tragedy: you don’t need to be a professional player to recognise the unwritten rules at play.

The Pass, more than just a hot topic fleshed out, is a showcase for Tovey and Kene, both reprising their roles from the original theatre production. Their fascinating one-on-one duel is a tactical battle of laddish “banter” and flirtations to test the water. If the film isn’t a complete slam dunk (aside from that being a basketball term), it’s the hint of a three-act play that didn’t need much tinkering on its journey from the stage. However, the performances and emotions are widescreen, serving a heartfelt reminder of the beautiful game’s not-so-beautiful prejudice.

HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY

With two boys’ mutual masturbation session in the opening scene, it’s clear Stephen Cone’s vibrant drama has sex on the brain. What follows is a pool party thrown for 17-year-old Henry (Cole Doman), the son of a preacher man, and at this family-organised affair – the other kids are from his church – all impure thoughts must be concealed. The water is an alcohol-free zone; horny adolescents splash about in skimpy outfits while suspicious parents watch from the side.

The scenes operate on multiple levels, requiring viewers to decode who is lustfully eyeing up who, and it’s this roller deck of characters that sustains the momentum. They include repressed parents (Pat Healy, Elizabeth Laidlaw), an older sister with a purity ring (Nina Ganet), and shy Logan (Daniel Kyri) who has sights on Henry. “It gets better,” a girl informs Logan, before they crack up at the cliché; their reaction is emblematic of a film that’s daring and humorous, bringing to mind Gregg Araki – a DVD copy of Kaboom is among Henry’s birthday gifts.

REAL BOY

Bennett Wallace, a transgender 19-year-old, refers early on in Shaleece Haas’ documentary to finding support on the internet – an illustrative montage scrolls through YouTube vloggers in transition and sharing their experiences from across the globe. Real Boy has a similar purpose. After a snippet of home footage presents Bennett aged 6, when he was called Rachel, the film fast-forwards to an adolescent ready for the switch. His mother, though supportive, is visibly uneasy and struggles with which pronoun to use, occasionally switching within the same sentence.

The camera team during this period depicts how Bennett can feel isolated, even when surrounded by loved ones; they, like him, aren’t sure what to expect. Subsequently, Bennett is nervous in hospital (“what if my nipple falls off?” he jokes), but it all goes to show, as with the YouTube clips, films like Real Boy are important on an educational level – even if that lesson is just to let some people know they’re not alone.

SUMMERTIME

A 1970s women’s liberation meeting in Paris catalyses the meet-cute for Catherine Corsini’s earnest love story. Young Delphine (Izïa Higelin), new to the city, is drawn to the group’s charismatic leader, Carole (Cécile de France), and they fall for each other during the romantic pursuit of spreading pro-choice pamphlets. Though chemistry is an overused term, it certainly applies for these two women, so different in physicality and mannerisms, but in mutual synchronicity as a pair.

The second half is somewhat unexpected, as the couple move to Delphine’s family farm when her father falls ill. Still, with a tempo shift, the relationship burns brightly, except now they’re two adults in separate bedrooms under parental supervision. With Carole pretending to be a friend, their sneaking around at night is inherently funny and sad, while daytimes are spent making hay in the sun. The location shift, at first jarring, serves as a period reminder that in a community with a dated philosophy, progressive residents could find themselves a train-ride away from the joys of radical feminism.

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