To help celebrate Pride Month, Arts & Entertainment staff writers have shared their favorite queer films. So whether you’re looking to learn more about the Asian American LGBTQ experience or the often overlooked history of Black queer representation in the film industry, our staff has the films for you.
From the same filmmaker who directed Netflix’s recent queer teen rom-com “The Half of It,” “Saving Face” was Alice Wu’s freshman debut. Released over a decade before Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Wu’s queer classic centers around the first- and second-generation Asian American immigrant experience with a cast composed almost entirely of Mandarin-speaking actors.
The lesbian romantic drama is grounded in protagonist Wil’s (Michelle Krusiec) internalized fear of public and familial reprisal and the strenuous effects it has on her relationships with both her girlfriend and mother; in this way, “Saving Face” shares predictable similarities with countless other queer films that grapple with themes of self-acceptance and secrecy. Yet what sets Wu’s story apart is how it exists beyond the cliche, simplified girl-meets-girl trope — the genuity in its portrayal of the Asian American experience adds layered nuance to the internal conflict Wil faces as she struggles to reconcile her respect for traditional, Eastern cultural values with her repressed sexual orientation and Western upbringing.
Along the same lines, I truly appreciate how ”Saving Face” doesn’t shy away from addressing the more problematic aspects of the Asian American community, adding a new dimension of representation by addressing larger cultural themes. Not only does the film underscore the cultural stigma against LGBTQ individuals and provide a brief glimpse into the colorism and anti-Black attitudes present in the community, but it also raises complex value-based debates concerning the balance between professional validation and personal indulgence, the guilt that follows straying from tradition and the extent to which we will sacrifice the self for family.
If “Saving Face” is beginning to sound too heavy for a casual Sunday-night quarantine movie binge, fear not. Wu manages to tackle these issues in a lighthearted manner. Her accurate depictions of anxious Chinese mothers and wives reveling in gossip — comparing and disparaging their children’s careers and love lives, bickering with their husbands, making digs at American culture, fussing over shows of respect — strikes a chord with Asian American viewers and adds layers of comedy to the love story as we examine the intersectionality of culture and romance.
Through the characters’ mistakes, feelings of shame, self-doubt and fear and ultimate expressions of love, the movie emphasizes seeing our mothers as multifaceted human beings — women that exist beyond their maternal role — and glorifies the triumphs of self-acceptance.
— Elaine Huang, staff writer
As someone who grew up adjacent to and in marginal contact with the Pacific Northwest, I seek out stories that utilize the lushness and gritty reality of the setting to complement the narrative. Aerial shots of rusty bridges and dilapidated houses covered with moss imbue such a sense of place for me in film that they take on an artistry nearly independent of the story.
Discovering this specific setting during a binge of Angelina Jolie films was strange, to say the least. In between watching the shallow spy movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the unhinged spy movie “Salt,” I happened upon one of Jolie’s first features — “Foxfire.”
Shot in Portland, Ore., “Foxfire” is the exact fantasy of the Pacific Northwest I have in my head. Based on a little-known Joyce Carol Oates novel, the film centers on five high schoolers and the intricacies of their relationship.
Legs (Angelina Jolie) comes to town and immediately catches the attention of the protagonist Maddie (Hedy Burress) and her new friends. Legs pushes the group to rebel. Seemingly a straightforward setup, the “girl gang” aspect moves past cliche and forces an interrogation of the social treatment of young women. Blissfully embracing the potential of romance between the group members, the film teases some, highlights the poignancy of others and shows the difficulty of growing up in an environment averse to acceptance.
Ultimately a coming-of-age film, “Foxfire” forgoes both the familiarity of the “coming-out” teen story (sorry, “Love, Simon”) and the pervasiveness of stories that only portray teenage girls as shallow dramatics in constant competition with each other. This choice, one that the gloomy Pacific Northwest setting greatly serves, makes the story stand as a beautiful, affecting and funny testament to the power and liberation of the “girl gang,” something the genre often forgets.
— Quinn Soltesz, staff writer
“Pain and Glory”
Pedro Almodóvar has continuously made an impact on modern queer cinema for decades, but nothing is more vulnerable and reflective of his own experiences than his 2019 “Pain and Glory.” This semi-autobiographical story revolves around an acclaimed filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) trying to make sense of his previous relationships and past mistakes to develop a film before age makes him physically unable to do so.
First and foremost, the film boasts a wide spectrum of colorful scenes — some of the most elegant in recent memory. But don’t let these visuals fool you — much of the story is bittersweet. Cutting between past and present, Salvador tries to reconnect with the people he’s known over the years that he has either lost touch with or personally wronged. He finds himself in a creative crisis, and his declining health and reemerging dependency on drugs make him question if he’ll even be able to shoot another project again.
Because the narrative revolves around an older man looking back on his life, “Pain and Glory” captures a wistful mood that differentiates itself from other LGBTQ films. It reminisces on all of the obstacles Salvador has faced over decades because of his fame, upbringing and sexual orientation. I don’t want to spoil anything that happens in Salvador’s quest for creativity and reconnection, but what I will say is this: all of the scenes between Salvador and Federico, an ex-lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia), blew me away because of how well Almodóvar makes years of repressed romantic affection come to life on screen through his direction. Much of this can be credited to Banderas, too, whose performance as Salvador is remarkable.
It’s clear that this was a personal project for Almodóvar, and that sentimentality certainly rubs off on you. It is the story of a man and how he has loved, candidly weaving its way between memory and reality to convey Almodóvar’s own meditation on his sexuality. I cannot recommend “Pain and Glory” enough. It is a gorgeously introspective film that grapples with forgotten intimacy, the power of reunion (or lack thereof) and the eternal struggle for creativity.
— Charlie McCollum, staff writer
“The Watermelon Woman”
Twenty-four years ago, Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed, edited and starred in the first feature film by a Black lesbian woman about a Black lesbian woman. Working outside of the studio system, Dunye was able to complete this autobiographical, documentary-style, comedy narrative that not only challenges the absence of Black queer representation in any film system, but also reminds us that this dearth obscures the full spectrum of identity that Black queer people have, beyond what Dunye called the “farcical, drag queeny, [or] commercial.”
That’s why we see Dunye appear in her own films so often. She talks to us, narrates her discoveries about the mysterious Fae Richards — a Black woman working in 1930s-era Hollywood and known to few as “The Watermelon Woman” — which in turn lead to discoveries about herself as she attempts to complete a biography about Richards through street interviews and oral histories. By her side is her faithful friend Tamara (Valarie Walker), steering her back to the true purpose of her project.
Along the way, white women, including a new love interest that fetishizes Blackness, and the white lesbian gatekeepers of LGBTQ history — among those is the wonderfully named CLIT Archivist (Sarah Schulman) — attempt to change the narrative once again and erase the history of Black queerness. But, in a wonderful twist, that same history is what brings Dunye to make “The Watermelon Woman,” and it is that same absence of history that should bring any film lover to pay attention to what we haven’t seen done since Dunye’s contemplative, hysterical and cherishable project.
— Lauren Mattice, digital managing editor