After making it through decades of stereotyping as villains or tragic figures, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters often ended up being corralled into a relatively limited range of story lines involving a form of coming out, from sexual or emotional awakening to figuring out one’s gender identity.
Some of these stories have spawned artistically accomplished movies, of course, and they have provided necessary guidance, hope and succor for many viewers. At the same time, L.G.B.T.Q. characters are perfectly able to shoulder the broad range of narrative challenges routinely afforded their straight or cisgender counterparts.
The past decade has seen a surge of films that have eschewed self-discovery narratives and propelled these characters into wonderfully complicated directions. In honor of Pride Month, here are nine worth watching.
Lisa Cholodenko’s Golden Globe-winning, very funny drama captures seemingly banal domesticity with a generous, quietly acidic manner. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s Nic and Jules enjoy a normcore upper-middle-class life with their teenage children, but the idyllic family portrait shows cracks — which deepen further after the kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) track down their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo). When the family unit eventually circles the wagons, the movie subtly makes us think about the very meaning of conformity.
‘Keep the Lights On’
A cursory synopsis of Ira Sachs’s drama reveals the plot points that once haunted sanctimonious, homophobic novels and movies about gay life: promiscuity, addiction, lies, anomie — look at these poor people! But Sachs tracks the evolving relationship between two messed-up men with a clear eye and a compassionate heart. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth) are not types but imperfect humans, fumbling around in circumstances informed by their gayness but also separate from it. Of particular note is the film’s haunting soundtrack, assembled from tracks by Arthur Russell.
“I promise, no drama,” says Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), can only roll her eyes: Sin-Dee runs on drama, as if it were a source of renewable energy. The pair, both transgender sex workers, spend a day zigzagging across Los Angeles by foot, bus, subway and cab in Sean Baker’s high-octane, brilliantly directed “Tangerine.” The movie is built like an escalating farce, rich in visual gags and sustained by machine-gun dialogue worthy of the best screwball comedies — albeit a lot blunter. And there is so much heart. The outsiders who people the movie are too often mocked, or worse; here, they are allowed to forge complicated bonds that don’t minimize harsh realities but allow for warmth and mutual support.
In a strange land out of time and place, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) lead a cozy domestic life punctuated by elaborate dominance-and-submission scenarios. Evelyn’s kinky demands, however, are starting to get on Cynthia’s nerves. That is the entire plot of the British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s mesmerizing third feature, which occupies a niche of one: the fetishistic lesbian lepidopterist fairy tale. Combining detached precision and a dreamy haze — the neo-psychedelic score feels like a third major character — the film scrutinizes the fine changes in the power dynamics between the women with surprisingly effective touches of deadpan humor.
There are two May-December pairings in Paul Weitz’s comedy about getting old and getting on with life. The first is between the blunt, quick-witted poet Elle (Lily Tomlin) and the gentle Olivia (Judy Greer). The second, more fully developed one, is actually more February-December and connects Elle and her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who needs $600 for an abortion. So much could go wrong in Elle and Sage’s daylong odyssey to raise the cash, but Weitz never gives in to facile drama and continually stymies our expectations — the film is always funny, but you may also find yourself choking back a few tears.
Buy or rent it on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.
‘A Fantastic Woman’
Marina’s partner, Orlando, dies of an aneurysm right after her birthday. As if this weren’t shattering enough, she isn’t afforded the luxury of grieving properly: His family is determined to negate her very identity and the police even try to criminalize her. You see, Marina (Daniela Vega) is transgender. Add a certain age difference with Orlando, and their relationship automatically becomes suspect to judgmental eyes. The film is never tearjerky while being extremely moving, and, refreshingly, the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio and his star do not turn Marina into a heroic activist. “A Fantastic Woman” is a portrait of an individual quietly, stubbornly fighting for her humanity.
Buy or rent it on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.
For their one-year anniversary, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) has brought her wife, Jules (Brittany Allen), to her lakeside childhood home. Viewers, of course, know better than to relax: the movie’s theme song includes the recurring lyric “There’s a demon inside.” Written and directed by Colin Minihan, “What Keeps You Alive” is an efficient, economical thriller in which a celebration of love descends into a gory nightmare. Psychopathy, it turns out, is an equal-opportunity affliction that does not care about sexual orientation — though having the main relationship in a horror movie be a lesbian one niftily twists the genre’s reliance on the often fraught interplay between men and women.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’
Drawing from the memoir by the forger Lee Israel, Marielle Heller’s lovely film has much going for it, including the way it tartly revisits the pairing of a supportive gay best friend and a charismatic female lead. Here, Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock is the gadfly, often unreliable confidante of Melissa McCarthy’s Lee, a frumpy lesbian saddled with a cat, frustrated longings and thwarted literary ambitions. This description of Lee is only partially accurate, though, because as in the best movies, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has compassion for its flawed protagonist. Lee is a complicated character who is not traditionally “likable” but is ceaselessly compelling — she is witty and smart, and makes bad choices for good reasons. You never not root for her.
Buy it on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.
‘Knife + Heart’
Vanessa Paradis’s Anne is obsessed with Loïs (Kate Moran), the woman who has left her. “Love me! Love me!,” Anne wails in a pouring rain. If the scene feels a tad dramatic, rest assured that it barely scratches the surface of Yann Gonzalez’s bananas movie. We are in a fantasmatic version of late-1970s hedonism, and Anne directs gay porn flicks while a masked serial killer lays grisly waste to her actors — his weapons include a switchblade dildo. Gonzalez was clearly influenced by Mario Bava and Dario Argento’s highly stylized, operatic violence, but his queering of horror feels very now rather than fetishistically retro.