Adolescence is often times a turbulent whirlwind of self discovery, disorientation and disquietude. The exploration of identity is central to the coming-of-age experience, whether it be religious, sexual, political or personal. There is ambiguity in this exploration of gender and nationality, of the relationship between the self and the world, as adulthood looms overhead, threatening to categorise, pigeonhole and mould bodies into already existing paradigms of being.
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Queer cinema celebrates this ambiguity. It is not one thing, but many; first love, heartache, hysteria, euphoria, pain, loss and almost always, gain. For a large majority of the LGBTQIA+ youth, the acceptance of their identity and formal revelation to the world makes adolescence a much harder period to navigate, as nonconformity is unconventional in the adult world of reason and rationality.
Cinema, in its reflection of people, helps to unpack some of the complexities faced by many in understanding others’ experiences, understanding the self and its place in the world.
“There is no reason to assume that gender also ought to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.”
― Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Queer coming-of-age cinema, a genre quickly increasing in popularity, seeks to educate the clueless, normalise the queer experience and extend empathy to those desperate to know hat they are not alone. The genre also helps those in a state of paranoia understand that questioning the way we feel about ourselves — and each other — can be messy and complex, but it helps in assuring that the storm will pass.
Following the critical success of films like Love, Simon (2018), Call Me By Your Name (2017), Booksmart (2019), The Half of It (2020) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), a plethora of LGBTQIA+ coming-of-age films are bound for the screen. While these films are definitely a step in the right direction, conventional or unconventional, it is vital to highlight diversity within the queer community and strive to maintain authenticity even in casting.
To commemorate Pride Month this year, here are seven queer coming-of-age films from around the world that deserve to be watched — or rewatched.
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, the first Kenyan film to be selected for Cannes, made waves when it was banned in its home country. The ban was a consequence of its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya, contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”. The story is, in contrast to accusations of grave political agenda, a tender romance about young love. Kahiu’s debut feature stars two electric newcomers (Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva) in a tale about forbidden love and hungry liaisons.
Granted, the film does lack newness in its plot that in part becomes predictable. However, it is the very same stereotype of the giddiness, butterflies and unmissable flush that comes with first love, which causes this film to land. Cinematographer Christopher Wessels illuminates the screen with pockets of colour and dreamy visuals baking vividly under the Kenyan sun. What the film does, is break convention by working within it. Like in Love Simon (Berlanti, 2018), the trope of the rom-com prevails, but Kahiu manages to celebrate the women and their relationship with colour, vibrance and honesty.
Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)
Céline Sciamma’s film about 10-year-old Laure aka Mikael (a revelatory Zoé Héran) is soft and affectionate in its dealings with the complex matter of gender. The story is set over the course of a summer when Laure’s family (her father, pregnant mother and younger sister) relocates to an apartment in a petit-bourgeois ex-urban locale. Héran’s character spends the summer exploring their identity in this new community. Sciamma presents Mikael as a boy among his friends, and a girl among his family. Their character challenges gender norms and biology by exploring activities outside the scope of conventional femininity, something that Mikael’s mother constantly attempts to draw him back to, by referring to him as a girl.
The film, in its quiet way, questions the normative binary of gender and the role that biology plays as a defining factor. Mikael’s struggle to adhere to either end of the gender dichotomy speaks to the queer experience as a whole. Tomboy presents the perspective of a child who is coming of age, and gender nonconformity from such young eyes reveals the rigidity that adulthood carries with it. Tomboy illustrates the brief freedom of being untethered, of spilling out of the pink and blue boxes, of being complex and yet, oh so simple.
Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
New Queer Cinema alum Gregg Arak’s disquieting film set in the lower-middle-class of the Midwest parallelly follows two small-town boys from Kansas who, in their childhoods, were victims of predatory assault at the hands of their Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage). Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenage hustler, disillusioned by the abuse, accepts his homosexuality and believes what he has with the coach is love, with a vulnerability that is unabashedly heart-breaking. Neil is charismatic but deeply troubled and complex, as is blond and short-sighted Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet). However, the difference in the way they deal with their trauma, lies in how Lackey chooses to dissociate. He is withdrawn and believes that during those lost hours between the age of eight and ten, he was abducted by aliens.
The film depicts how traditional ideas of masculinity challenge non-cis-gender males in a way that makes adolescence — a slippery slope to begin with — that much harder to navigate. We are led to believe that the narration is almost matter-of-fact despite being subjective accounts, where even a predator is not apologised for, or villainised in an obvious way. Arak depicts abuse without sensationalising it, and the film unravels to reveal the characters’ slow recognition of the impact of trauma on their sexuality and the complexities their experiences have left them with. It is an intensely affecting, painful and heart-breaking tale of recovery, restoration, healing and reclamation.
Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)
Writer-director Dee Rees paints a semi-autobiographical picture of the truths about coming out as a black woman in Brooklyn. Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a young poet on the cusp of owning her sexuality as an androgynous member of the queer community. Her self-discovery is outlined by supporting characters as she is pulled in different directions by those closest to her. Her parents are hesitant in coming to terms with her changing identity; however, the film never villainises them, and this is its success.
Every character is written with empathy and the result is an honest representation of growing up and coming out. It is heartbreaking, inspiring and thoroughly human. Rees’s study of a teenage African-American lesbian coming out in the face of her mother’s vicious prejudice is not just a representational milestone in the coming-of-age genre, but a stirring, emotionally-immediate experience on any terms.
Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry has adopted a complicated legacy. Its galvanising release in 1999 sparked overdue awareness around the violence suffered by the trans community. The film narrates the story of 21-year-old trans man Brandon Teena, and is criticised for its depiction of his rape and murder that took place in 1993 in Nebraska, as well as for excluding the African-American man Phillip Devine who was killed alongside Brandon. Peirce has also come under fire for casting a cisgender actress in the lead role (currently a popular debate in cinematic representation) after auditioning trans and queer people for hours before deciding on Swank.
It was, at the time, a radical spectacle, being the first mainstream, popular cinematic portrait of a trans person at least in western cinema. Brandon Teena (Hillary Swank) wears his new masculinity buoyantly. “Shorter,” he says while getting his hair cut, eager at the prospect of a future as a man. His confidence is naive and sad, but it’s magnetic. Peirce’s portrayal of the excitement and fragility of trans life, and how it is constantly read and reread by the people of the world is, however, still congratulated by some trans people. Boys Don’t Cry sparked several conversations surrounding trans rights and acted as a token of empathy in its embodiment of trans-ness, for many victims and members of the community for years.
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, an indie showstopper when it premiered in 2017, features the story of two young men falling in love. The backdrop is Italy’s stunning countryside, and shows Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothy Chalemet) feeling invincible and intoxicated by each other. Everything is romantic and dripping with desire: the languid humidity, the desperation and the heady trance of teenaged summers. Elio is seen brooding, often in agony as he falls under Oliver’s spell when the latter — who is a graduate under Elio’s father — stays with his family over the summer. The film is beautiful in its homage to the sunny little villages in Europe, and long, summer days of swimming and lounging about and falling in love. It is reminiscent of the Old World and the intellectual fever, always accompanied by cigarettes and dancing.
The shots in the film resemble 1980s short-shorts, with every frame resembling what could easily be a painting, inviting the audience into a world untouched by the politics of identity. To some, this is its greatest success, while to others, its greatest downfall. To the latter, the film’s exclusion of gay history bars it from being revolutionary. The AIDS epidemic is not spoken for. To the former, this is what makes it the true masterpiece of queerness. The film’s multiplicity of desire, its resistance towards identity policing, consolidation and reification is radical. It rejects categorisation and celebrates the ambiguity of gender, nationality and sexuality, all at the same time.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Depictions of black queer men in film have been few and far between. Moonlight, which made history by becoming the first queer film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, is a breathtaking, unconventional and honest coming-of-age film about a young black gay man. With the backdrop of poverty in a suburban Miami neighbourhood, is a kaleidoscopic account of Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) life in three different periods chaptered by the different identities he either chooses or is given: ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’.
Barry Jenkins provided a platform for the deeply marginalised, and the film centres around characters that have previously been benched or rejected. It is a rich, tactile and sensuously dignified renaissance of black culture, black identity and queerness because it is as queer as it is black. Moonlight portrays the truth about what sexual identity means for queer black men faced with the threat of hypermasculinity. The film’s treatment of sex is sensitive and truthful; there is intent behind Chiron’s avoidance that cannot be recognised as coyness, but must be acknowledged as respect.
There is also a strong sense of ownership in the film’s portrayal of the unbounded queering of masculinity as Little (Alex Hibbert) grows into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and then Chiron becomes Black (Trevante Rhodes) over the film’s three acts. The ‘gaze’ is utilised by Jenkins in a way that defies heterosexuality and conventional binary experiences or expressions of gender. The portrait of Chiron’s identity is fluid and in flux, yet unyielding.
James Laxton’s cinematography honours Miami in its neon glory, saturation and sun when the expectation from most was a dismal canvas of neorealism and defeat. It is a reflection of what the film as a whole does with a tale of pain and conflict. The result is a celebration of love and friendship that makes you swoon, then cry, and then go back for more.