Reeling: The Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival celebrates its 28th year by focusing on the idea of cinema as an escape from reality. After a tumultuous year for gay rights, from the passage of Proposition 8 to the raid on a gay bar in Fort Worth on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, it’s understandable that the queer film industry would want to impart a more optimistic outlook to filmgoers. With 150 films from countries like the Philippines, Sweden, and Puerto Rico, Reeling provides innovative, diverse, and evocative narratives that will surely allow people to escape the political woes of today and look toward the future.
As in previous years, most of the films selected deal with familiar problems within the gay community, like familial and romantic relationships, coming out, and discrimination, but comedy seems to be a much more prominent feature in the films than in years past. The festival’s closing night on November 15 features Oy Vey My Son is Gay, a hilarious comedy that tackles issues of family dynamics, acceptance, and diversity with incredible wit and grace. Starring Lainie Kazan (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Jai Hernandez (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos), comedian Bruce Vilanch, and Carmen Electra, the film follows Nelson Hirsch (John Lloyd Young) as he tries to come out to his overbearing Jewish mother Shirley (Kazan). Shirley is convinced that her son is dating a centerfold model (Electra), so when she discovers that he is actually in a serious relationship with the flamboyant interior designer Angelo (Hernandez), Nelson’s relationship with his family, especially his mother, unravels. Though Oy Vey follows a typical coming out narrative, Kazan and Vilanch’s hilarious quips and the family’s diversity make the film a unique story of unconditional love and acceptance.
Other comedies like The Big Gay Musical and Make the Yuletide Gay add a bit of camp to the festival. The Big Gay Musical opens the festival on Thursday. The film is heavy on religious criticism, incorporating everything from the story of Genesis to televangelists, and the plot seems a bit contrived and overly political compared to the overall tone of the film. The dazzling musical numbers, however, are certainly entertaining: Who doesn’t like buff guys dressed as angels in tap shoes?
Just in time for the holiday season, Make the Yuletide Gay screens this Saturday. The movie is another coming out story, following Olaf “Gunn” Gunnunderson (Keith Jordan) as he travels home to his overly chipper mother and pot-smoking father for the holidays. Everything is as usual in the Gunnunderson household until Gunn’s boyfriend, Nathan (Adamo Ruggiero), unexpectedly drops by and Gunn is forced to tell his parents about his relationship. Make the Yuletide Gay is an entertaining comedy that is filled with so much bad sexual innuendo (stocking stuffing takes on a whole new meaning), that you can’t help but laugh.
The festival also features many films under the slightly more austere dramedy genre. Mr. Right, a British film playing on November 9, is a touching and amusing movie that documents the ups and downs of romance. Louise (Georgina Zaris) fears that she is perpetually chasing after gay men, so she enlists the help of her gay friends to point her in the “straight” direction. Unfortunately for Louise, her friends—William, Alex, Harry, and Tom—are too troubled with their own relationship woes. William’s (Rocky Marshall) young daughter refuses to let him date, Alex (Luke de Woolfson) is dating an unhappy Harry (James Lance), and Tom (David Morris) must buy the love of his hunky boyfriend Larrs (Benjamin Hart). Mr. Right is a refreshing film that moves away from typical gay themes and tackles the struggles present in all relationships, gay or straight. With clever dialogue, masterful cinematography, and beautiful acting, Mr. Right is a wonderful film that portrays the universality of the search for love.
Though Reeling is more focused on uplifting films this year, it still makes a point of taking seriously the grave political issues facing the LGBTQ community. One beautiful documentary, Fish Out of Water, focuses on the hostile relationship between religion and the gay community. Director Ky Dickens interviews religious leaders, members of Chicago’s LGBTQ community, and politicians to better understand the interactions between these groups. Fish Out of Water may deal with heavy material, but Dicken sinjects humor and animation into the film, so that viewers leave with a positive attitude.
The fight for gay rights certainly seems to have taken a step backward this past year, but the films at Reeling represent a hopeful outlook for the future and a welcome escape from a reality that can sometimes be a bit too harsh. It may not seem like the easiest thing to do, but this year’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival encourages you to keep your head up and laugh.