Category Archives: LGBTQ+

on Netflix: Special, Seasons 1 & 2

Given the sheer volume of TV shows that are out there demanding my attention while I gorge my eyes on movies with a zeal that would make Lucille Ball’s chocolate-eating clown blush, it’s almost a miracle that I managed to catch a little show called Special. Special came recommended to me cautiously by friends who know I have a low tolerance for idiot television and shows that eventually morph into bloated, unrelatable behemoths that overstay their welcome and still try to squeeze out every drop from its cache of stories by making tie-in movies and spin-offs because that seems to be the only way out of a creative rut. Checking the run time of each of Season 1’s episodes (on average, 15 minutes), I decided to give it a go and see what the fuss was.

Well, reader, I stand corrected. Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t just binge-watch the first season in one massive gulp but went into the second (and, to date, last) season of Special. I said to myself, here was a show that got it. While it might be based on Ryan O’Connell’s life, it also portrayed a young thirty-something in a manner I could have never anticipated in the days of Will and Grace or even the over-sexed Queer as Folk (I’m going quite a ways back, people.). Special gives you not a ravishing gay man who looks airbrushed to death and is played by an actor who can’t play a mannequin (which would be a stretch for the pretty), but a super-cute gay guy who just happens to have cerebral palsy.

The CP part gets downplayed early in the show’s first season as Ryan (Ryan O’Connell), just employed by the online blog eggwoke, informs his nightmare boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle, an actress trapped in a one-note, viciously stereotypical role) that his limp is the result of an automobile accident that left him this way. Olivia flat-out pretends to sympathize but exploits Ryan’s “accident” for page views.

In the interim, Ryan navigates his attempts at becoming independent from his over-protective mother Karen (Jessica Hecht, criminally underrated) who is also going through her own issues of being an older woman who meets an attractive neighbor (Patrick Fabian) while navigating taking care of Ryan and tending to her own demanding, senile mother in a story arc that mirrors into itself. The show’s 15-minute length is perfect to give us a snapshot into Ryan’s life as a newly independent millennial: in one episode, a housewarming party that would have involved his “friends” morphs into a poignant get-together with recent BFF Kim (Punam Patel, who is a stand out in this show). In another episode, Ryan has a rather tender moment with an escort (Brian Jordan Alvarez) who Ryan has contacted to help him lose his virginity.

It probably is inevitable that Special veers into soap territory, but never fully goes there. It is possible that the only way to develop Ryan and Karen’s codependent relationship was to add a few monkey-wrenches that would eventually bring the two to a clash, but the narrative actually deepens what could have been a rather superficial show. That storyline will get played out during season 2 which expands its episodes’ runtime to almost 25 minutes and fleshes out Kim’s character to be not just the sidekick but a fully-developed Indian-American woman going through financial hardships and the pressures of being/looking successful in a world that would demand she look flawless (and white, and thin).

If the show lacks some depth it’s essentially in Ryan’s workplace. Everyone in eggwoke seems to be a cartoon. A tangential character, Samantha (Gina Marie Hughes) has a voice so squeaky and a demeanor that makes her resemble something out of Salad Fingers — sad, with a trembling appearance and huge eyes. Olivia… well. The show thinks that having her creates some kind of contrast in her rampant, outlandish sociopathy, and perhaps at one or two appearances she would have been enough, but she is in almost every episode, and her presence snuffs the light out of what is an outstanding show that loves its main characters.

What I admire the most of Special is Ryan himself. O’Connell has written him not as a put-upon millennial trying to make it in the writing world but as someone who can be petty, self-centered, and even a bit flakey. He’s so bulldozed into getting his independence that he completely obliterates his mother’s importance — although, in his defense, Karen, who has not had a life of her own since she can remember, has projected everything onto Ryan in such a way that a separation would be inevitable. I loved that she also gets to have quite the storyline later in Season 2 as her character somewhat resolves a romantic situation and eventually comes to grips with her own mortality through the death of a loved one. Hecht truly lets her character breathe out in the moments she gets to explore her inner pain, and this gives Special much-needed depth.

I hope that O’Connell can negotiate a third season. It seemed that come Season 2 Special was getting into its groove of discomfort, with Ryan falling in love with a guy (Max Jenkins) who happens to be involved with someone else, and then flirts with another (Buck Andrews) who is also comfortable in being gender non-conforming and also is autistic. However, if two seasons is all there is, then so be it; this is an excellent show with a great cast that finally gives me characters I want to see more of on TV.

When Coming Out is Hard to Do: Two of Us and Uncle Frank

Hard to believe, but there still are a number of (mostly older) people who have not come out to the public. Reasons seem to abound, from living a private life to simply, not feeling as though an explanation is due to society.

When I heard of Two of Us through film festivals six months ago I almost laughed it off because it seemed through its premise to picture a comedy of errors in the style of In and Out and many more that have come before it. It just seemed to be dead in the water from the word go, and France has submitted many, more urgent, more relevant films — Petite Fille a clear example.

Filipo Meneghetti’s movie focuses on a pair of women who have been living across from each other as neighbors for the greater part of their lives. While they are clearly a couple, one of them, Martine (Madeleine Girard), has kept this part of her life a secret from Frederic and Anne (Jerome Varanfrain and Lea Drucker), her son and daughter. A turning point in which both Martine and Nina (the great Barbara Sukowa) decide that it’s time to enjoy retirement arrives, but complications ensue when Martine suffers a stroke and is rendered disabled.

Meneghetti constructs his film much like a thriller disguised in the form of a domestic drama waiting to unfold. He makes sure to let us in on the level of intimacy and love that exists between Nina and Martine, only to have fate cruelly snatch it away from their very hands at the last minute.

The movie then takes a left turn, with Nina at the helm, as she makes every attempt to be with her love. Nina crosses the line so many times throughout the movie it is near-impossible not to champion her, and Sukowa’s supremely intense, monomaniacal performance navigates the mudder aspects of what one will do for a loved one. If the movie takes a slight chance with the suspension of disbelief, it’s with turning Martine’s sons — particularly Anne — into villains. Even so, the Two of Us is quite a compelling watch, right down to its final, emotionally impacting scene.

Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, and Peter Macdissi in Uncle Frank

Somewhat more uplifting but no less traumatic is Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank. Ball’s movie tells the story of 18-year-old Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), who moves from her small Southern town to NYC in the early 70s to go to college and also be near to her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), whom she feels close to. Upon her arrival, she learns that he’s gay and in a relationship with Wallid (Peter Macdissi). Unfazed, the drama truly begins when Frank’s father and Beth’s grandfather (Stephen Root in a vicious role) suddenly dies, forcing Frank to take a trip down memory lane and slowly confront his past.

For the most part, Uncle Frank keeps things light, which plays in its favor. Trauma is a ghost that can never truly be healed, and Frank’s is no less hurtful and reflects the rejection experienced through the suffocating bonds of the family — in this case, the family patriarch. Bettany brings an equal measure of comedy and pathos to a man tormented by a horrible past that he has tried to distance himself away from, and his performance is anchored by Lillis in a strong, feminist role. The movie does lose a bit towards its resolution, choosing to avoid the pitfalls of Southern Gothic and instead of keeping it light and airy and anachronistically forward-thinking. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Two of Us: B; Uncle Frank: B

Netflix Discoveries: Saturday Church

Here we have a classic example of a movie made on a shoestring budget and featuring (then) mostly unknown players, a movie that made its debut at both the Tribeca and Montclair Film Festival. While I don’t doubt Saturday Church was well-received, movies like these tend to make next to no noise when officially premiering in an extremely tight, limited release, which if I am correct, was at the IFC Center sometime in 2018.

Damon Cardasis and producer Rebecca Miller have created a profound (albeit too brief) movie about a 14-year-old boy named Ulysses (Luka Kain) who is questioning his identity. When we meet him, it is through the death of his father. Luka’s father was considered to be a man of greatness, and his absence now lands Luka in the unwanted position of the man of the house.

His mother (Margot Bingham) works long hours and can’t manage the house, so she brings in Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), an ultra-conservative woman who already seems to know Luka’s secret. She immediately begins to impose her rules in the house, rules that don’t sit well with Luka, who is merely trying to figure himself out as he transitions from boy to young adult.

Increased pressure at home finds Luka at Christopher Street through the subway, and it’s there that he (accidentally, while on the Piers) comes upon Saturday Church. Saturday Church is a non-profit outreach program for marginalized LHGBTQ+ children and young adults, run by Joan (trans activist Kate Bornstein). Ulysses meets a small group of trans-women and a young gay man (Marquis Rodriguez) who take him in openly as a new family member. Needless to say, Ulysses, who now knows there are more people like him, still can’t, for obvious reasons (Aunt Rose) express it at home.

Cardasis has constructed his movie like a musical, with snippets of what seem to be longer tunes taking center stage when characters begin to express thoughts and emotions that perhaps words just can’t. It might look a little jarring — and some numbers land gracefully, while others don’t — but they serve a purpose, which is to illustrate these people’s inner world, their loves, their losses, their pain, and their hopes for something better.

On the plus side, the casting of trans-women in trans parts is a major asset to Saturday Church. Far too often cis-women have been cast in these parts, so to use women like MJ Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia, Indya Moore, and Bornstein is a massive score for true diversity as opposed to diversity in intention, but not in execution.

Cardasis also navigates some rather queasy waters late in the movie when Ulysses finds himself at the mercy of a sexual predator. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch, but it is a sad reality that still exists for the homeless who need a meal and maybe some quick change to live. I almost didn’t want to see it but realized later, it had to be shown if at all partially and with enormous taste, to show the ugly reality trans-youth face.

Saturday Church is on Netflix and for free. It is a must-watch.

Grade: B+

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021: Little Girl (Petite Fille)

The Lincoln Center returns with a virtual-only version of its Rendezvous with French Cinema film festival. Now in its 26th year, the film festival shows no sign of slowing down and manages to continually reinvent itself rather than present the same tired Catherine Deneuve/Isabelle Huppert movies that frankly, are just fillers and manage to say nothing new about the language of film. I’ve nothing against either one — I have always admired Huppert and know her to be the better actress — but Deneuve has mostly coasted off of her golden locks and vacuous stares that were the rage in the 60s at the height of her fame. Now she’s been whittled down to spewing out at least a film or three out for the sake of repetitive acting working. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes, it’s like chomping down on some fluff — it’s super-sugary but has no substance. The closest thing she has come to actually deliver a true performance was in last year’s The Truth, which was the film to open the 25th edition of RWFC, and which received a belated release thanks to the pandemic.

This year, if there is a movie to watch it is Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (Petite Fille). If I’m not wrong, this is the first documentary to open at the French film festival. Lifshitz’s movie focuses on a special character. His subject, the mononymous Sasha, is seven years old, and while she may have been born a boy, she clearly — and openly — affirms herself as a girl. Scratch that — she is a girl, plain and simple. Her mother Karine, while in therapy early on, expresses support that is so open-hearted, so emotional and complete, that it threatens to overshadow Sasha’s own story. Karine partly blames herself for Sasha, a situation that any parent of a gay or transgender child might experience. Wanting a girl so badly, she wonders if perhaps her own intensity of desire may have caused Sasha to come into the world announcing her femininity to French society, which plays a large part of the doc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Little Girl establishes that Sasha has nothing to fear at home. She is unequivocally supported by her father and two older siblings who practically stand up for her at any chance. [She has a younger brother but he is too young to truly understand the drama unfolding before his eyes and mostly gets relegated to being a toddler.]

The conflict of the documentary arises — or has been brewing, even before the tape has begun to roll — in the outside world. Karine has had to contend with a school system that is shockingly intolerant towards trans rights and who will not accept her as a girl. Yet, this is all Sasha wants, and her tiny face contorts into a frown that suddenly explodes with tears at a therapy session with renowned child psychologist Anne Bargiacchi. It is all that one needs to see to realize the conflicts that Sasha has been put through just because her identity doesn’t line up with her physical genitalia. Place that side-by-side to an earlier scene when Karine informs her therapist that the sheer happiness Sasha displayed when wearing her first dress was incomparable. As a viewer, as someone who is extremely sensitive to the delicate psyche of a child, I couldn’t but be furious with a system based on archaic beliefs. It seems to almost parallel the ones transgender people face here in the US — particularly in more conservative parts of the country.

Karine eventually starts to win her battle against the school, but scars and wounds remain. Sasha’s dance teacher forbids her to wear girl’s clothes simply because “in her country such a thing is illegal.” Karine fears, and is justified in feeling so, that Sasha will encounter hatred in this world and worries she may not be around to protect her when that time comes. In the middle of it, we get the more silent shots which are worth every second of their presence in the film. Sasha, simply existing, dancing to her own rhythm, running on the beach in a peach bathing suit, combing her hair which gets longer during the movie — the only indication of the passing of time. These are the snippets that matter, because they present a little girl completely at bliss in her own body and self. Little Girl, without a doubt, is one of the most delicate, sensitive documentaries to emerge in a long time and I hope that it gets the exposure it should here in the US once it hits theaters (and virtual platforms). We could all learn from Karine, but especially, from Sasha.

Little Girl will have its premiere as one of the seven movies included in the Seattle International Film Festival, Main Selection, on April 8. It will arrive later at theaters and virtual cinema. Date of release TBA.

Grade: A