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‘Wildhood’ explores queer Indigenous experience

An example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime

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Joshua Odjick and Phillip Lewitski star in ‘Wildhood.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

It’s hardly news to say that the movies have a less-than-ideal track record when it comes to authentic representation – or, really, any representation at all – of Indigenous people. For most of its history, Hollywood’s “dream machine” dutifully perpetuated the narrative that, with very few exceptions, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and even after the cultural tide began to turn, filmmakers who attempted to propagate a more compassionate viewpoint usually muted their efforts with stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans that presented them either as comic relief or tragic victims of oppression – when they weren’t being idealized as magical fonts of ancient wisdom, that is – and did little to convey the reality that they were really just human beings like the rest of us.

It goes without saying that the LGBTQ community can relate. But though things have gotten somewhat better for us in recent years, we are still hard pressed to think of many examples of films in which Indigenous people have not been essentially marginalized – and when we try to think of movies with Indigenous people who are also queer, the best most of us can do is “Little Big Man,” the 1970 Arthur Penn western in which Dustin Hoffman is raised by a Sioux Nation tribe and grows up with a Two Spirit character named Little Horse (played by Native actor Robert Little Star) as his friend. For the record, it’s a sympathetic portrayal, if not quite fully drawn. It was also nearly 60 years ago, and we’re still waiting for another mainstream movie to show us a more authentic vision of queer Native experience.

While Hollywood continues to drag its feet on correcting that gap, however, Canadian/L’nu Two Spirit/nonbinary filmmaker Bretten Hannam has been hard at work to bring their own perspective to the screen – and their debut feature film, “Wildhood,” which launches on Hulu June 24, is as much a breath of trope-free air as one could wish.

Disregarding expectations about Indigenous identity right out of the gate, it centers on Link (Phillip Lewitski), a half-Mi’kmaq teenager who lives with his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) in a rural trailer park on the coast of Nova Scotia. Their home life is toxic, with an abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes) more interested in training them for a life of crime than in taking care of their basic needs; when Link learns that his Mi’kmaw mother may still be alive – despite what he had been told since early childhood – he abruptly decides to steal away with Travis and make a run for it, hoping to locate her and find a better life in the process.

Ill-prepared for a cross-country journey, an early encounter brings them quickly under the wing of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Two Spirit Mi’kaq pow wow dancer traveling from gig to gig. Though Link is hesitant to trust this interloper and the two are frequently at odds, he gradually warms to Pasmay, and an emotional bond begins to grow between them as the three young travelers make their way across the Canadian wilderness together.

It’s not hard to gather where things go between Link and Pasmay, and together with the quest to reconnect Link to his estranged mother and the Native heritage she represents, it should be obvious enough that this is a coming-of-age tale whose protagonist yearns to embrace more than one neglected facet of his identity. Yet though it might be easy to classify “Wildhood” as a teen “coming-out” movie, it would also be misleadingly dismissive.

Like its central character, it’s a movie with many questions to be asked and answered, and sexuality is only one of the many elements woven together in Hannam’s briskly paced yet intricately layered screenplay. No one in the movie needs to “come out,” exactly; it’s easily gleaned that Link knows from the start that he is gay, or at least someplace on the queer spectrum, even if he doesn’t know that getting comfortable with that fact might be tied up in the journey ahead of him. As for Pasmay, they’re fully comfortable with their Two Spirit nature, yet the past trauma of family rejection is something they have yet to fully overcome. As these two walk together – accompanied by the one-eyed but clear-sighted Travis, who is working through family issues of his own – their growing closeness requires them to grapple with these lingering fears, providing a framework through which Hannam can subtly illuminate the differences between the world views held by white and Indigenous cultures.

With an Indigenous queer filmmaker behind the camera, the takeaway from that contrast inevitably emphasizes the opposition between two different cultural conceptions of queerness itself, and rightly so. As for their direction, Hannam’s remarkably self-assured visual storytelling effortlessly complements the nuances of their screenplay to mesmerizing effect, making all these intellectual-sounding themes arise like thoughts in a meditation, to be noted as they pass and remembered later. No doubt it helped that “Wildhood” was expanded by Hannam from an award-winning 2019 short; in any case, the result is a film with an easy, natural flow that neither shies from emotion nor dwells in it, and culminates exactly where we hoped while taking us places we never expected to go. 

As for the acting – a crucial element in making any film rise to its highest aspirations – Hannam’s cast not only serves them well, but are so perfectly attuned to their movie’s delicate spirit that they seem not to be performing at all. The nonbinary Odjick, charismatic without being showy, exudes a confident compassion that makes a perfect complement to Lewitski’s awkward and angry teen rebel, and the easy chemistry between them helps to make the latter’s lowering of defenses all the more believable. Winters-Anthony gives a stunningly genuine performance as Travis, helping to bring full weight to the all-important theme of chosen family; and Michael Greyeyes (the film’s most recognizable face, thanks to TV roles in “True Detective” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” among other titles) gives a memorable turn as a helpful stranger who facilitates Link’s eventual reunion with his mother – in exchange for a favor, of course.

“Wildhood” comes to Hulu after becoming a hit on the Festival Circuit in 2021, where it was an official selection at both TIFF and AFI Fest and won awards at both the Canadian Screen Awards (for Odjick’s performance) and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. That provenance is a testament to the importance of such festivals in amplifying the voices of marginalized artists and allowing them to tell their stories – but it’s not the reason for putting the movie at the top of your must-stream list, nor is the fact that it’s an embarrassingly rare example of Indigenous queer inclusion on the screen. Ultimately, the reason for watching “Wildhood” is that it is an example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime, existing at the intersection of personal experience, public enlightenment, and popular entertainment.

That’s a big burden to bear, but “Wildhood” never feels weighed down. On the contrary, it leaves us with a sense of freedom and acceptance that is lighter than air. 

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New Bella Abzug documentary is a must-see film

‘This Woman’s Place is in the House’ highlights courageous congresswoman

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‘Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House’ movie poster.

Watching the documentary on Congresswoman Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.), “Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House,” brought back so many great memories for me. I had to watch it twice to separate my personal feelings about Bella, having worked for her and become her friend, to imagine what others would see who didn’t know her, and her life. 

Both viewings were rewarding. Jeff L. Lieberman, writer and director, has brought Bella to life for everyone. 

Lieberman tells the story of a passionate, courageous, brilliant, woman, one who made a real difference in all women’s lives. But more than that, she made a difference in everyone’s life; men, women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. Bella was a true force of nature. Using pictures and video from her younger years, Lieberman makes Bella come alive. Pictures of her mom and dad and those with the love of her life, her husband Martin. Interviews with her daughters Eve, and Liz, help tell her personal story. He brought out a side of her not everyone saw, delving into how in her younger years the experiences she had formed her life’s goals. Bella was all about fairness and decency. Bella was a leader and people followed. 

Yes, many called her ‘a tough broad.’ She brooked no nonsense or weakness in herself or others. She was tough on her staff and those around her, but no tougher than she was on herself.  Yes, Bella was loud. She could yell at her staff, other politicians, and even constituents. But she was also the Jewish mother, and many called her Mother Earth. 

The film shows the influence of her Orthodox Jewish family. How when she said Kaddish for her father after he died when she was just 13, she was relegated to the women’s balcony of the shul. It was something she fought against all her life. Bella went to Hunter College and wanted to go to Harvard Law School. At the time Harvard didn’t take women or Jews. So she went to Columbia University Law School. She formed her own firm when she graduated. 

She started wearing hats when she realized that was how she could distinguish herself as a professional, and wore them all her life. They became her trademark. As a young lawyer she went to Mississippi to fight for the life of a Black man who had been sentenced to death for a crime she didn’t believe he committed. She would sleep in a bus station because when people found out she was his lawyer, they wouldn’t rent her a hotel room. She worked so hard she had a miscarriage, but nevertheless kept fighting for him, though eventually he was executed. That experience, and others, portrayed in the film, simply drove her to fight even harder for fairness for all. For civil rights and for the rights of all minorities, including the LGBTQ community. Not everyone in the LGBTQ community knows it was Bella who introduced the first Equality Act bill in 1974. A bill still not passed today. Bella was ahead of her time in so many ways, and Lieberman shows that in this film.  

There is a funny story in the film about House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms Fishbait Miller, telling Bella to take her hat off when she entered the House Chamber. The rumor had it she told him politely to “Go fuck yourself.” Bella denied it. But many years later I sat with him at a dinner party and he confirmed it. Laughing, he said he ended up liking and respecting her. 

Lieberman’s film portrays Bella’s tenacity in Congress, standing up to the powers that be and her fight against the CIA and FBI and her push to impeach Nixon. Bella was a founder of Women’s Strike for Peace and there is a focus on her fight against the Vietnam war, and for a ban on nuclear testing. 

The film follows her campaigns, from the first winning one in 1970, where she came up with the slogan, now the basis for the title of this film, “A woman’s place is in the House, the House of Representatives.” Then her fight to keep her seat in 1972 after she was redistricted. He follows her losing race in 1976 to Patrick Moynihan, in the U.S. Senate primary, by only a whisker. Then her continued losses first in 1977 for mayor of New York City, then for Ed Koch’s old seat on New York’s East Side, and finally, a losing race for Congress in Westchester County. She wanted to get back into Congress but never did. But even when she lost, Lieberman shows us how she never stopped fighting for people and change. She ran the Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, and went to China for the International Women’s Conference in 1995. That was where Hillary Clinton declared, “Women’s rights are human rights,” even though by that time Bella was in a wheelchair.

Lieberman brings Bella’s life to us in the fullest way with a host of women, and some men, who speak about her, and what she meant to them. They include Barbra Streisand, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, and Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, among others. Former staffers, and community activists, who talk about what she meant to them and what she accomplished. He reminds us Bella was named a whip by Tip O’Neil in her third term, because she got things done. Bella got the bill passed that allowed women to get their own credit cards. She is responsible for all those curb cuts on our streets. She broke the highway trust fund allowing states and cities to get funding for mass transit. She was not only loud, and a fighter, but she was tremendously successful. 

“Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House,” will be at the DCJCC for three nights; March 14, 17,, and 18. Tickets will go fast and they are available online. I would urge every woman, every member of the LGBTQ community, and everyone who cares about peace in the world, to see this film. You will not only learn about a great woman, but seeing it may just give you that push to go out and fight for your own rights. Even more, to emulate Bella, and fight for a better world.

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Oscar-nominated ‘Nimona’ an essential gem for queer fans

Rescued from oblivion of studio politics, film rings palpably authentic

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The two queer protagonists of ‘Nimona.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

If you weren’t already a fan of ND Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, last summer’s release of Netflix’s screen adaptation of “Nimona” likely escaped your notice. But with its emergence on multiple critics’ choice lists and awards show ballots for 2023, it’s time for you to pay attention.

Created while Stevenson — who has since come out as a trans man — was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and initially distributed on Tumblr, the comic was published in print in 2015 to become an award-winning bestseller. It’s an adventuresome sci-fi/fantasy blend set in a futuristic world where the fairy tale knights of medieval tradition have been given a high-tech makeover; but what captured its audience even more than its high-spirited, whimsical creativity was its unsubtle exploration of LGBTQ identity, underscored by a same-sex love interest for its hero but resonating most deeply through its shape-shifting title character and a plot that revolves around the systematic suppression of “otherness” by society. Yet, “controversial” elements notwithstanding, it’s fully and unapologetically targeted toward YA readers – the very audience, of course, that is most in need of its messaging in a time when the discourse around queer identities has become an omnipresent source of existential anxiety for young people attempting to come to terms with any non-hetero-normative leanings that might be bubbling to the surface of their developing psyches.

When Stevenson – who went on from the success of “Nimona” in print to become the creative force behind numerous queer-friendly projects in various media, including a stint writing for Marvel (the comics “Thor” and “Runaways”), Disney’s animated “Wander Over Yonder” series, and the acclaimed Netflix reboot “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” – came out as trans in 2020, the themes of queer acceptance in his seminal work were illuminated beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the meantime, “Nimona” had already been optioned to 20th Century Fox Animation as the basis for a film adaptation, produced by their subsidiary Blue Sky Studios; when Disney acquired the rights to Fox and its properties, the movie fell under its control. According to staffers, commenting in the wake of Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek’s clumsy response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” political campaign, the film had already experienced pushback from studio executives over its LGBTQ themes, and especially its inclusion of a same-sex kiss – and when COVID-related financial pressures led to budget cuts, Blue Sky, was officially shut down, along with “Nimona” and all the rest of its projects.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. “Nimona” was picked up by indie production company Annapurna in 2022, with Nick Bruno and Troy Quane stepping in as directors, and Netflix granted distribution rights. The completed film, with all of its intended queer elements firmly intact, was given a limited theatrical release in June of 2023, debuting as a streamer on the Netflix platform a week later – to the delight of fans who had believed the long-awaited project to be a lost cause barely a year before.

It took another six months or so for the rest of the world to take notice, but thanks to its inclusion on critics’ choice lists and awards-season buzz in the wake of multiple nominations, “Nimona” has become one of last year’s “hidden gems.” and now stands within plausible reach of achieving the highest possible honor from the Hollywood movie industry: the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Of course, whether or not it wins that (or any other) accolade has little objective bearing on its quality as a film; while positive steps toward inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ characters and stories may be a laudable accomplishment in today’s tenuous social environment, they don’t necessarily equate to cinematic excellence from the wider perspective of aesthetic analysis. Fortunately, in this case, the two viewpoints merge perfectly to provide a movie that is at once keenly relevant to queer life in the modern age and defined by an artistic vision that transcends any political agenda or clumsy social engineering in which it might otherwise have allowed itself to become mired. While it may place its queer or queer-suggestive characters front-and-center in the spotlight, its message is unmistakably aimed toward anyone who feels (or has ever felt) like an outsider in a world that rewards conformity over individual truth – and let’s face it, that means everybody.

In Bruno and Quane’s finished film, there is no effort to obscure or downplay the story’s queer underpinnings: the hero, a newly minted knight named Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed) is unequivocally gay, deeply in a fully requited love affair with fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (YouTube star Eugene Lee Yang), and his shapeshifting sidekick, the titular Nimona (Chloë Grace Moritz), is so obvious an allegorical avatar for trans-hood that only the most oblivious of viewers could miss it. That’s fortunate: deprived of its deeper purpose of accessibility for those “outside the norm,” there would be nothing all that special about “Nimona” beyond its admittedly stunning visual design, which evokes connections to thematically related movies from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Star Wars” and everything in between. But though it makes painstaking effort to honor those and other influences within the scope of its pointedly progressive narrative, it establishes and inhabits its own distinctive milieu, carving a space for itself in which it feels neither derivative nor mired in gimmicky conceit – and it achieves this mostly through its loyalty toward (and empathy with) the characters whose status as outsiders to the mandated cultural standard makes them even more relatable.

Admittedly, it’s hard to miss the allegorical broad strokes in the plot, in which Boldheart, the first knight without a direct link to the ancient bloodline of the ruling class, is framed as a political criminal and targeted for elimination by a governing system steeped in long-standing traditions and prejudices, or to its seemingly juvenile title character, a girl with the ability to transform her physical being at will who is branded and persecuted as a “monster” because of it. As the story progresses, revealing even more hidden-in-plain-sight correlations to the “real” world, it’s difficult to imagine even the most obtusely straightforward viewer being blind to the story’s clear message about the corrupting influence of ancient and unquestioned preconceptions on the systems that govern our world.

Its aggressively deployed messaging, however, is not a detriment; “Nimona,” rescued beyond probability from the oblivion of studio politics and economic setbacks, rings all the more palpably authentic for wearing its agenda on its sleeve. In its unequivocal and undiluted embrace of the queer experience of “otherness” which lies (barely) beneath its every nuance, it becomes the inclusive, gay-and-trans-affirming parable it was always intended to be, emerging as a front-runner in the yearly race for accolades from a cautiously mainstream industry establishment in spite of its unapologetic queerness.

If that doesn’t make it essential viewing for queer movie fans, we don’t know what would.

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French ‘Lie With Me’ believes in love after love

A compelling story about the capacity of human beings to heal

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Victor Belmondo and Guillaume de Tonquédec in 'Lie With Me.' (Photo by Michael Crotto; courtesy Cinephobia Releasing)

Sometimes, a love story is about what happens after it’s over as much as how it starts.

Take, for example, the French import “Lie With Me,” which makes its U.S. debut via DVD and VOD on Feb. 15. Based on Philippe Bresson’s 2017 novel “Arrête avec tes mensonges” (“Stop With Your Lies”), it was filmed in 2021, hit the European festival circuit in 2022, and received a general release in its homeland in early 2023, and is making its first appearance on American screens at a time when most film buffs are already looking toward whatever 2024 movies might be coming our way after the hoopla of awards season fades into the background for another year.

Don’t let its status as a “late-bloomer” put you off, however. As any true film buff knows, such circumstantial factors have nothing to do with a movie’s inherent worth or quality. Indeed, it’s often the most overlooked films that ultimately prove also to be the most satisfying, and even if it doesn’t come with the kind of industry buzz that often holds a perhaps unwarranted sway over the tastes of the moviegoing public, this one strikes enough of an emotional chord for queer viewers (especially those who came of age in an earlier generation) to make it worth going out of one’s way.

Directed by Olivier Peyon from a screenplay he wrote with Vincent Poymiro, Arthur Cahn and Cécilia Rouaud, “Lie With Me” is a slice-of-life character study, set in the mid-1980s, in which a celebrated-but-controversial gay author – Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec), now in advancing middle age – returns to his hometown of Cognac as the “guest of honor” for the anniversary celebration of a company that produces the city’s namesake liqueur. It’s a bittersweet trip for him, conjuring painful teenage memories of a first love who disappeared from his life without explanation and has left him yearning for closure ever since; but his melancholy is displaced by unexpected intrigue when he discovers that Lucas (Victor Belmondo), the young man responsible for his invitation to the festivities, is the now-adult son of his long-lost paramour, opening up the possibility of finding answers he never thought he’d have – but only if he can let his defenses down enough to ask the necessary questions of Lucas, who seems to be seeking some answers of his own.

Tinged with wistful nostalgia and built around an eminently relatable coming-of-age narrative that invites comparison with movies like “Call Me By Your Name” or any of the countless similar tales of painful first love that have been a staple of queer cinematic romance since such things were “permissible” on the screen, “Lie With Me” fully assumes the wistful tenderness of its genre by interweaving his main story with the one which happened all those years ago – the unexpected and clandestine affair between younger Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) and his sullen, secretive, and deeply-closeted classmate Thomas (Julien de Saint Jean), rendered with the kind of fragile sweetness that gives such tales of youthful awakening their irresistible appeal, largely thanks to the authenticity and chemistry of the two young actors who play it out for us. Even so, it takes a more brooding and palpably melancholy tone than most of us might be used to in a love story, partly due to the fact that the romance at its center has been over for decades, yet still casts a long shadow over its haunted protagonist, who seems never to have been able to fully give his heart (or, more to the point, his trust) to anyone since. It’s a romantic movie, to be sure, but one in which the romance is viewed through the bitter hindsight of a man who was left burned by it, and becomes even more un-requitable with the revelation of tragic developments that came in the years between.

As a consequence, it can sometimes feel like a depressing slog; Stéphane’s jaded, defensively deployed misanthropy occasionally becomes as much an obstacle to our empathy for him as it does to his making real connections with the people around him on the screen, and there are times when our patience with his self-imposed emotional isolationism wears thin. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peyon’s film is not exactly a “love story” in the usual sense, but an exploration of what happens to someone in the aftermath of a loss – and the emotional devastation it has wrought on their life –  that has been kept, undiscussed and unprocessed, as a kind of lifelong “sacred wound.”

Yet it’s also an exploration of how such trauma can finally begin to be healed through connecting with others who share a common sorrow. As a balance to Stéphane’s guarded, occasionally abrasive persona comes the younger Lucas’ outgoing, approachable enthusiasm for connection, which comes in even greater contrast to his older counterpart’s attitude as we gradually discover his own hidden sense of loss; it’s this quality that serves as catalyst in bringing the two men together, despite reticence in both of their corners, and ultimately brings the story to a denouement that, while far from the kind of happy-ever-after ending so many queer viewers usually long to see, might just allow them both to achieve something like closure.

The result is a film that overcomes its own gloom to offer hope without resorting to wish-fulfillment fantasy – something it owes to its insightful and autobiographical source novel, a critically-acclaimed bestseller (transcribed for English-language publication, surprisingly enough, by actress Molly Ringwald, who enjoys a lesser-known career as a writer and translator) in its native France, and to the savvy adaptation from Peyon and his fellow screenwriters. The humanity essential for making it work, however, is delivered through the work of its two leads, with the César Award-winning de Tonquédec’s unvarnished star turn as Stéphane finding a natural symbiosis with the affable Lucas brought to life by rising talent Belmondo – and yes, if you’re wondering, he is the grandson of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the late French New Wave screen legend whose iconic looks and charisma he has certainly inherited. Alongside Gillet and de Saint-Jean, veteran French actress Guilaine Londez rounds out the main cast with a memorable performance as a provincial event coordinator with more observational savvy than she lets on.

None of that is likely to be enough to give “Lie With Me” the kind of feel-good appeal so many modern queer audiences hunger for; though drawn with enough depth and complexity to elevate it above the familiar-yet-still-relevant tropes of its narrative – doomed same-sex love, tragic queer victimhood, the self-sabotaging power of internalized homophobia – it still tells a story that feels frustratingly repetitive to the generations that didn’t live in the era it takes place, and perhaps even for many of those from the generations that did. We can’t argue with preference, so if its subject matter and thematic palette seem to you like something you would rather skip, then you’re probably right. For anyone else, though, it’s a thoughtful and ultimately compelling – if not quite uplifting – story about the capacity of human beings to heal.

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