Two interesting queer indie films are on screen in Landmark Theatres this week. Both play with classic cinematic genres, with varying degrees of success.
Written and directed by Keith Behrman, “Giant Little Ones” is a coming-out story where no one actually comes out. Instead it’s a timely but timeless coming-of-age story about friendship, betrayal and the power of rumor.
Refracted through the lenses of John Hughes movies and current notions of sexual fluidity, the script hearkens back in an interesting way to Lillian Hellman’s classic 1934 queer drama “The Children’s Hour” where vicious (and unfounded) rumors about illicit sexual behavior destroy the lives of two school teachers. The play was adapted twice for the screen. The first version (1936), retitled “Those Three,” turned the play into a heterosexual love triangle; the second version (1961) restored the original title and the accusations that the two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) are lesbians.
In “Giant Little Ones,” the rumors about homosexuality are started by one of the boys involved. Best friends since childhood, Frankie Winter (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas Kohl (Darrin Mann) are popular members of the swim team. Both have girlfriends, but while Ballas brags about how often he and Jess (Kiana Madeira) have had sex, Frankie remains a virgin, much to the frustration of his girlfriend “Cil” (Hailey Kittle).
After Frankie’s wild 17th birthday party, a moment of unexpected sexual intimacy between the boys becomes the subject of high school and family drama when one of the boys starts to spread rumors that the other one is gay (no spoilers here). Things get especially complicated for Frankie because his father (Kyle MacLachlan) has recently left his mother (Maria Bello) for another man.
Behrman’s script is uneven. He’s great at capturing the complicated sexual zeitgeist from gay dads and their new boyfriends to genderqueer high school girls with strap-ons and high school survivors of sexual trauma, along with the more traditional gay panic defense and violent homophobia in the locker room. But, some of the characters are underdeveloped and their actions don’t make a lot of sense. Behrman’s work as a director, however, is confident and assured, especially his work with cinematographer Guy Godfree and editor Sandy Pereira. The movie is lovely and the flows freely with a sure-footed pacing.
The film is nicely grounded in Wiggin’s fine performance as Frankie. Like most teenaged boys, he’s not always likable, but Wiggins is always available and engaging. He’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, including Niamh Wilson as Mouse, the young lady with a dildo; Taylor Hickson as Frankie’s friend (and Ballas’ sister) Natasha; Maria Bello as his frazzled mother; and, especially Kyle MacLachlan as a dad who’s carefully trying to rebuild his relationship with his son.
Quirky and frequently charming, “Giant Little Ones” has earned a place in the LGBT teen movie canon.
Directed by Ondi Timoner and written by Timoner and Mikko Alanne, “Mapplethorpe” is a conventional biopic about an unconventional artist. Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith from “Doctor Who” and “The Crown”) rocked the art world with his stunning and crystalline black and white photography that captured a variety of subjects from celebrities to flowers to black and white men (including himself) engaged in explicit BDSM scenes.
Unfortunately, Timoner takes a timid connect-the-dots approach to Mapplethorpe’s tumultuous life. We meet all the major players as they rotate in and out of Robert’s life, but we never really see the drive and passion beneath his chilly façade or understand why his lovers/muses/patrons are drawn to him.
The actors, including Smith, fill out their roles as well as they can, but the film never really catches fire despite fine performances by Carolyn McCormack as Mapplethorpe’s mother, Marianne Rendón as rocker Patti Smith, John Benjamin Hickey as Sam Wagstaff, McKinley Belcher III as Milton Moore, Rotimi Paul as Ken Moody and Brandon Sklenar as Robert’s little brother Edward.
One exception is a thoughtful cameo by Brian Stokes Mitchell as Father Stark, the Mapplethorpe family priest, who visits an ailing Robert on his mother’s behalf. Because the priest is not part of the traditional Mapplethorpe story, Timoner and company have some fun with his scene. The father and the prodigal son discuss God and the devil while Mapplethorpe takes pictures and Father Stark is literally blinded by the light of the camera’s flash. It’s a welcome change from the boilerplate biography.
Still, for anyone who’s not familiar with Mapplethorpe’s life and work, the film is a great introduction to this recent queer hero. For fans of his work, it’s a great chance to see some of his most iconic photos on the big screen and to learn some of the stories behind them. Stay for the credits which include more photography.