Previewing Reeling 2016 – The 34th Chicago LGBTQ+ Film Festival

Fall programming in Chicago is tough business, where the cacophony of film coverage on a global (Venice, Toronto) and national (Telluride, New York City) level dominate local coverage. Yet the efforts of Reeling’s Brenda Webb, Richard Knight Jr., and Sarah M. Rubin display a clear-headed economy and consistency that makes their programming stick out even among the larger festivals. As the business of film festival programming becomes increasingly commercialized, Reeling’s expansions and adjustments over the decades feel less like a compromise and more like an organic statement on their growth. From increasing the number of venues highlighting the festival, to an earlier start date, these logistical alterations are complemented by the festival’s persistently keen eye for diverse programming. My small sampling of their programming yields this important result: Reeling remains adventurous. 

Reeling 2016 runs from September 22nd through the 29th, beginning with opening night celebrations at The Music Box Theatre with subsequent screenings at Landmark Century Cinema and Chicago Filmmakers. For a full schedule and ticketing information, click here.

(Deb Shoval, 2016) 

There’s an intriguing narrative thread to pull in Deb Shoval’s debut feature AWOL, as it asks what kind of person would voluntarily enlist in the U.S Army. This particular person, Joey (Lola Kirke), is a capable young woman and a respected member of her small community. Her decision to enlist comes from a place of necessity – she hopes to use the Army’s resources to eventually pay for college – while also hoping to gain a new set of skills and experiences. The harbinger of change comes in Rayna (Breeda Wool), a married mother who courts the younger and inexperienced Joey. 

Expanded from Shoval’s short film of the same name, AWOL doesn’t hold up on a narrative level, so often straining for pathos in a hurried and imprecise way. It’s paced in a particularly odd way, brushing past vital narrative moments while fixating on scenes that add little to the overarching tempo of the film. There’s a distinct sense of what is the skeleton of the short film and what was added to achieve its feature runtime. Shoval is a capable visual stylist who draws out worthy performances from her two leads, but so much of AWOL feels like a compromise: she would benefit from stripping away at exposition rather than adding to it.

First Girl I Loved
(Kerem Sanga, 2016)

I wrote off Kerem Sanga following The Young Kieslowski, a middling teen comedy in the vein of The Last American Virgin and Obvious Child that so often felt past its expiration date, where its gender and sexual politics seemed so fabricated and false.

First Girl I Loved is not a great film, but it is a considerable improvement for Sanga, and possesses two exceptional performances from its primaries. Here, Anne (Dylan Gelula) is a high school student working on a yearbook profile for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand). There’s a narrative framework that Sanga adopts, pivoting on the moment that Anne confesses her crush to her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), who is both unaware of Anne’s homosexuality and despondent over her admiration for someone else. It’s a clever strategy, one that contextualizes Anne’s closeted sexuality while acknowledging the external forces that have prohibited her from coming out.

Other characters ornate the picture, featuring some more prolific names such as Louie’s Pamela Aldon as Anne’s mother and The Comedy’s Tim Heidecker as a guidance counselor. But they’re largely superfluous arbiters to Sanga’s false dramatic sensibilities, wherein the naturalism of the film’s central relationship is compromised by persistent intrusions from caricatured outside forces (none more egregious than Ana Dela Cruz as Sasha’s mother). To Sanga’s credit, and this was the case with Haley Lu Richardson in The Young Kieslowski, he has a particular knack for finding versatile young performers. Gelula and Hildebrand are an exceptional pairing: convincing, with each possessing the sort of fragile constitution that’s more or less indicative of being a teenager. Even if I remain unconvinced of Sanga’s formal faculties, he’s introduced several new young actors worth considering. Perhaps I wrote him off too quickly.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
(Deborah Esquenazi, 2016) 

It’s difficult not to admire Deborah Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four for the virtue of its runtime alone. Whereas documentaries of its ilk (such as Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky Paradise Lost trilogy or Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s Making a Murder) carefully examine each orifice of its case, Esquenazi’s film operates in broad strokes. Less attuned to procedure, Southwest of Salem is dictated by raw emotion and vitriol against a system that would incarcerate four women under false pretenses.

There’s value in Esquenazi’s emotionally-driven approach as she reflects on the four incarcerated women’s fruitful lives before prison with as much attention as she does the judicial process that led to their decade-plus imprisonment. But so often, particularly as the gears of injustice wind in the film’s middle portion, the film’s breezy quality could have really benefited from a more thorough hand. Vital subjects, such as the lawyers associated with the case, could have truly shed some light on some of the more vague elements that led to the women’s imprisonment. It’s a fascinating subject and case to explore, but as our culture has become inundated with so many stunning examples of meticulously examined case studies (the aforementioned documentaries, along with Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and the Serial podcast), Southwest of Salem’s brevity signals something of a missed opportunity.