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Gay cinema enters the post-taboo era

Stephen Cone's religious drama The Wise Kids opens Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival—and how the cultural landscape has changed in those three decades! Consider that when the festival premiered in April 1981, in the screening room of Chicago Filmmakers at State and Hubbard, the most recent Hollywood movie to focus on gay life was William Friedkin's lurid thriller Cruising (1980). Al Pacino starred as a straight undercover detective prowling New York's grimy leather bars in search of a sadomasochistic killer, and Friedkin's attitude toward the sweaty, bare-chested patrons ran the gamut from pity to disgust. After gay groups picketed the film, Hollywood responded with two dramas, released within a week of each other in 1982—Personal Best and Making Love—that treated the gay experience with more respect. But The Crying Game (1992) and Philadelphia (1993), whose commercial success and multiple Oscar nominations represented a mainstream vindication of sorts for more intelligent representation of gay characters, were still a decade away.

Brenda Webb, who founded the festival and continues to this day as its director, says that back then she hoped not only to correct Hollywood stereotypes but to find a wider audience for experimental films. "I tried a bunch of different outreach programs," Webb wrote me. "Showing anti-war films and films on Agent Orange to Vietnam vets in their own vet centers, showing feminist films to women in church basements, showing Black Panther films to youth in housing projects, showing experimental films in Chicago parks, and so on. Of the things I tried, the Chicago Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was the thing that took on a life of its own the very first year because the turnout was huge and it immediately became clear that we were filling a dire need that LGBT audiences had at that time to see films representing their experiences." At the same time, the festival allowed her to present experimental artists with a distinctly gay sensibility—Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Barbara Hammer, James Broughton—to moviegoers who'd never heard of them.

Obviously the country has changed: this past May the Gallup Organization announced that, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans (53 percent) think same-sex marriage should be legal; and in September gay soldiers came out of the closet as Don't Ask, Don't Tell was finally consigned to the ash heap of history. Gay characters on television, once restricted to "controversial" sitcoms like All in the Family, are now commonplace, and daytime TV has become the province of Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell. In fact you couldn't ask for a better yardstick of how different things are than The Wise Kids, a lovely new drama that opens this year's festival on Thursday night at the Music Box. The Reeling website points out that Stephen Conewho was eight months old when the festival began—is the first local artist to win the coveted opening-night spot. But The Wise Kids, about physical and spiritual longing in a Christian youth group in small-town South Carolina, also represents a different sort of milestone: it's so broadly accessible that you wonder whether the festival's stated mission, to celebrate "a community too often misrepresented or ignored in mainstream film and television," might be ready for revision.

Given the ongoing friction between gay rights and Christian fundamentalism, what really distinguishes The Wise Kids from most gay films—in fact, most films, period—is how evidently Cone respects religious devotion. Son of a Baptist minister, he grew up in a milieu very much like the one here (the movie is dedicated to "the former members of the Unity Baptist Church Youth Group, Florence, SC, 1992-1998"). One of the main characters in The Wise Kids is Tim (Tyler Ross), a high school senior struggling to come out to his family and friends as he prepares to head off to New York City and study filmmaking. Yet the movie accords equal time and sympathy to his two straight pals: Laura (Allison Torem), who's more alarmed than angry when Tim confesses that he's gay, and minister's daughter Brea (Molly Kunz), who accepts Tim's newfound sexuality but suffers privately from a deepening loss of faith. The movie opens with a few lightly comic moments as the classmates rehearse for an Easter pageant (Jesus manages to fall off the cross), but its closing scene of some of the same characters dressed as angels for a nighttime Christmas ceremony is presented without a trace of irony.

Even Tim's experience coming out seems notably different from the dramatic template that prevailed only a few years ago: there are no scenes of him getting bashed on the street or harassed at school, no guilt-ridden blow jobs or anguished suicide attempts. His widowed, goodhearted father, Jerry (Matt DeCaro), accepts Tim's sexuality without batting an eye. I have no idea whether The Wise Kids accurately reflects what a teenager coming out in South Carolina might encounter today, much less in the late 90s, when Cone was in high school. But I suspect that, at least in part, the filmmaker decided it was time to move on from the violent homophobia depicted in movies like Boys Don't Cry and instead show some of the quieter, more intimate pain that people endure as they open up about their sexual identity. One of the more piercing scenes in The Wise Kids comes when Tim is confronted by his 13-year-old brother, who's found some erotic stuff on Tim's computer and learned the truth from their father. "I think it's sick," the boy says, walking away without another word and leaving Tim to reckon with this irreducible fact.

His problems are all temporal, which puts him in an easier position than Brea. Torn between her affection for Tim and the Bible's unequivocal condemnation of who he is, she types the words bible contradictions into a search engine and follows the links into a full-blown spiritual crisis. Brea doesn't dare discuss this with her father, who is pastor of their church, and when she manages to confide in Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai), an older woman from the congregation, the only advice she gets is "Don't think so much." Desperate for guidance, Brea finally seeks out a private audience with Cheryl (Sadie Rogers), the liberal-minded and frankly atheistic niece of another congregant. "I've kinda been having my own, uh . . . ," Brea confesses, unable to finish the sentence. But Cheryl understands and gives her an unexpectedly grown-up piece of advice: "Well, you know. Do something with it." It's one of those moments that make you realize you're watching a work of serious reflection.

There's an old adage that a good writer loves his characters, and Cone proves how good he is with his treatment of Laura, the last of the three friends and the most devout Christian. Early in the film she seems almost comical, piling up superlatives as she concludes a simple lunchtime grace ("In your awesome, holy, amazing, awesome, awesome name! Amen"). After Tim's confession and Brea's doubt leave her isolated and defensive, Laura seems more pitiful than silly, dogged by the suspicion that her friends think she's too dumb to understand them. But eventually Cone arrives at a sincere respect for her kindness and her stubborn belief. Near the end of the movie he gives Laura a penetrating close-up when she comes over to Brea's house to make one last, heartrending pitch for Christianity. "All I'm saying is, don't leave it lightly," Laura begs her friend. "It's so beautiful and it's so true, just don't leave it lightly, OK?" Laura and Cheryl may be coming at Brea from opposite directions, but they're both urging her to reach further inward.

Tim, Brea, and Laura may be the title characters of The Wise Kids, but they aren't the only ones addressed. There's another plotline involving Elizabeth, who has eyes for another man in the congregation, and her sexually conflicted husband, Austin (played by Cone himself), who also has eyes for another man in the congregation. And Cone finds room for a few poignant moments involving Tim's father, who's lonely and would like to find a partner. Near the end, when Tim quizzes his dad about his romantic "prospects," Jerry chuckles at the word and brushes it away. "I got my kids," he says, repeating it again with greater emphasis. The scene is almost a throwaway, yet in a sense it encapsulates the entire movie: many of the younger characters are looking for someone to love them, but Jerry understands that loving is more important than being loved. It's no coincidence that he, of all the characters in the movie, has the least trouble squaring the circle of his Christian faith and his son's sexual orientation.

Aside from The Wise Kids, Reeling will present some 130 shorts and features through November 12, and I'm guessing your neighborhood Baptist church would be considerably less enthralled with Kink Crusaders or Eating Out: The Open Weekend. But like every minority tossed into the American melting pot, the gay community will eventually reach a point where their political goals are more or less realized and they, like the Irish, may forget about their identity until it's parade day. If The Wise Kids is any indication, that point may be closer than we think. By accident or design, it scores what some might consider the ultimate victory for a gay film—that it needn't be considered one.

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