A new feature-length film shot and produced in Ottawa is tackling the complexities of the coming-out process head-on.
Written and directed by Kerry Chalmers, Queer explores the emotional highs and lows of coming out and finding yourself through the eyes of Aiden (played by Taylor Hallman), a young man who is struggling to understand his own identity. Throughout the film Aiden meets bullies, crushes and allies who help him discover, embrace and, ultimately, assert who he is.
After 40 years spent teaching high school, Chalmers knows the power of letting young people tell their own stories. A teacher at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in Orleans, he taught television broadcasting and graphic design to teens. Faced with the challenge of teaching a group of students with ADHD, he set them to work making a series of videos on teen issues.
The result of this experiment, Hormones TV, is a series of four videos dealing with birth control, sexual health, drug use and homophobia that were so well-received they’re now recommended viewing in schools across Alberta and BC.
Chalmers says he soon began to get requests for a film that focused on coming out. But his film program was so successful there was never time to tackle the project — until now.
Following his retirement, Chalmers got to work, and now he’s produced a feature-length film that focuses on the realities and complexities of coming out.
“In the meantime, I’d gone across the province; I’d interviewed I don’t know how many different queer youth, straight youth, friends, everything else . . . [and] put a lot of background together on what they’d gone through, what they felt the issues were, what they would have liked to see if they’d had resources available sooner,” he says.
“The other four films were all designed for school, so they had to be a little bit candy-coated, a little bit school acceptable, et cetera. We decided on this one, we weren’t going that route.” Queer takes a hard look at what it means to be a gay teen, tackling issues including bullying, sex and dating, dealing with a lack of family support, and navigating the murky world of labels.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Jamie Hubley, a gay Ottawa teen who took his own life in 2011.
“I’m kind of tired of the situation where you’ve got something really good, but teachers are afraid to show it in the classroom because of the subject matter,” Chalmers says of the film’s hard-edged approach. He says he was guided by what the youth he worked with felt should be included and not by what would be deemed acceptable in the classroom. “Our film’s not X-rated, but we didn’t cut anything out — we didn’t cut any topics out.”
One of the topics Queer explores is trans identity. While gaming online, Aiden meets Starblade, another player who he assumes is male. Starblade turns out to be Justine, a trans youth who teaches him about the diversity of queer identity, the importance of feeling confident in your sexuality, and that labels don’t always work for everyone.
Chalmers says he made a point during casting of trying to find actors who shared identities with the youth they were portraying. Justine, for instance, is played by local trans actor EmberJane Vail, who he says gave her own input into the script.
While not possible in every case, Chalmers feels this casting method added an important element of authenticity to the portrayals.
Throughout the film, Aiden also meets Danny (Keigan Buffett), with whom he has his first romantic experiences; Francis (Scott Norris), a bully who targets him for being gay; and Ethan (Nick Surges), a young gay man who is living on the streets and turning tricks to survive after being kicked out by his family.
Each of these characters contributes to Aiden’s journey, teaching him lessons about assumptions, privilege and sexuality and that being who you are can sometimes be difficult.
In an experience Chalmers says many gay teens can relate to, the first person Aiden comes out to, his friend Emma (Taylor Kelly), tells him she already knew. The film also includes a scene with an LGBT youth-group meeting, where Aiden meets other gay and bi-identified young people.
Chalmers says he wanted the film to show as broad a representation of the LGBT spectrum as it could.
“We haven’t treated anything as negative,” he says, adding that the film also includes a discussion of BDSM and a look at bathhouse culture. “Some people take exception to that. Well, I’m sorry, that’s a reality of the community.”
The real point that Queer attempts to drive home for youth is that labels and orientation are valuable parts of a person’s identity, but they aren’t the only defining things. Ultimately, as Aiden learns, he is just himself.
For now, Chalmers says the film is on a limited rotation, starting with a screening at Divergence Movie Night at PTS on June 4. Because of its subject matter, he says only time will tell whether Queer is eventually shown in schools.
“We would consider recutting parts of it if we needed to for an educational version, but that wasn’t our main intent in doing it,” he explains. “Our main intent was to try and help young people, and to help young people you can’t bury the truth. You’ve got to put it out there and let them feel it, let them talk about it and let them understand it.”