Arts & Entertainment
13 min

TIFF 2015 gay guide

Our favourite queer films at this year’s extravanganza

Now in its 40th year, the Toronto International Film Festival shows no signs of slowing down. Considered by many as the most important public festival on the planet, the mammoth 10-day event is brimming with queer stories — Daily Xtra has perused the program to find you the fest’s gay best.

Benjamin

In political discussions around marriage equality, gay parenting is often portrayed as an idealized experience with stock images of attractive, beaming couples cuddling healthy babies. But fledgling director Sherren Lee’s TIFF debut shows the decision to have kids requires a lot more than societal acceptance. Two couples, one gay and one lesbian, have decided to have a baby. Instead of a single child that goes back and forth, both women will carry, keeping one of the kids themselves and passing the other one off to the dads. But when unexpected health issues mean that’s no longer possible, the foursome are forced to renegotiate their ideas of co-parenting. Anchored by strong performances from an all-Toronto cast, Benjamin is a heart-wrenching look at the complex decisions that go into starting a queer family.

Closet Monster

“Original coming out story” has become a gay oxymoron. But director Stephen Dunn’s first feature succeeds in being just that. Oscar (Connor Jessup) dreams of leaving his small East Coast town to study special effects make-up in NYC with his best gal pal, aspiring actress Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), in tow. His burgeoning sexuality is no secret to him, but his brutally homophobic father Peter (Aaron Abrams) is willfully blind to his son’s identity, constantly aiming to butch him up, while his mother Brin (Joanne Kelly) remains largely absent. The only one who seems to understand him is his hamster Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Though complex, his life seems to have found a rough equilibrium until he meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a handsome stranger who’s spending the summer in his seaside hamlet. Equal parts blood-soaked horror film, poignant family drama and voyage of self-discovery, Closet Monster puts a genuinely unique twist on a well-worn tale.

The Danish Girl

Initial reviews for Tom Hooper’s biopic about trans pioneer Lili Elbe have been mixed. Some have wondered why he cast Eddie Redmayne to play Elbe, in lieu of a the increasing number of out trans actresses who might been up for the job. He’s also been critiqued for rendering her story as a touching costume drama (likely geared to snag Redmayne a second Oscar after his 2014 win for The Theory of Everything) rather than a trenchant look of the realities of transitioning. Set in 1920’s Copenhagen, the film follows painter Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and her husband Einar (Redmayne), through mutual processes of self-awakening catalyzed by her asking him to don a pair of stockings while standing-in for a female model. While it won’t provide queers with a gut-wrenching look at the life of one of the first people to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl can perhaps serve as a gentle step into the world of trans issues for mainstream audiences.

Fire Song

Much of our recent national dialogue around Aboriginal issues has focused on missing and murdered women. But Adam Garnet Jones’s debut feature tackles another of his community’s pressing subjects — suicide.

In the wake of his sister’s death, Shane (Andrew Martin) finds himself at an existential crossroads. A smart kid with good grades, he wants to leave the rez for Toronto and attend university. But his boyfriend David (Harley Legarde-Beacham) begs him to remain, dedicated to understanding their cultural history and ancestral traditions. At the same time, he’s also fooling around with Tara (Mary Galloway), who’s blind to his gay tendencies and hopes to depart for Hogtown with him. From the razor scars on Martin’s upper arms to the two real-life suicides that took place on the Ontario reserve while they were shooting, the film serves as a stark reminder of Aboriginal communities’ self-harm crisis. But it’s really about much more than that.

Torn between the city and the country, formal education and embracing tradition, a straight life and being true to his desires, Jones has rendered a character pulled in all directions at once. And while it’s set in an Aboriginal community, Fire Song will resonate deeply with anyone queer from a small town.

Freeheld

In the wake of her impassioned 2014 HRC speech, Canadian actress Ellen Page admitted that her role in Freeheld was a major factor in deciding to come out.

Based on a 2007 film of the same name (which snagged the Oscar for best short doc), Peter Sollett’s piece tells the true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), her partner Stacie Andree (Page) and their game-changing gay rights battle. Hester, a 23-year veteran of the Ocean County, New Jersey police force is diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. While straight employees can transfer pension benefits to surviving spouses, Hester’s request to do the same is flatly denied. The pair decide to fight, becoming unintentional gay rights poster girls in the process. Equal parts heartbreaking love story and inspiring look at triumph over adversity, the film’s thesis is best summed up in Page’s description of why she left the closet: “You have fucking privilege, so do something with it.”

She Stoops To Conquer

This film takes its title from an Oliver Goldsmith play about an upper class woman who poses as a maid to win the affections of a wealthy young gentleman. But theatre director Zack Russell’s first film has seemingly nothing to do with the Anglo-Irish writer’s 18th century comedy. Inspired by Toronto comedian and star Kayla Lorette’s penchant for incorporating old man characters into her act, the quirky short follows a struggling drag king (Lorette) as her new act flops and she has an unexpected encounter her performance persona’s doppelganger (Julian Richings). Featuring cameos by local heroes Bruce Dow and William Ellis, the piece unfolds simultaneously as a surreal deconstruction of gender, a kooky look at failure and, like the script for which it’s named, a rather unlikely love story.

Stonewall

Probably nothing at this year’s fest has more buzz than Roland Emmerich’s take on the birth of the modern gay rights movement. And not for good reasons. Activists, angered by his apparent whitewashing of historical events, have called for a boycott (though the outrage is based solely on the trailer, since the film has yet to be screened). Emmerich and star Jeremy Irvine have pushed back, claiming the finished work is more diverse in its representation than the two-minute snippet circulating online.

The fictional tale of a hunky blond country boy who moves to the big bad city and gets swept up in a watershed moment of gay history has Oscar-bait written all over it. But it’s also clearly not meant as a definitive recounting of this narrative. Whatever the end result, the discussions surrounding Emmerich’s take on that fateful evening in June 1969 raises important questions for filmmakers and activists alike. Using an imaginary character to explore a living history is definitely questionable. But frankly, so is boycotting a work of art you’ve never seen.

Toronto International Film Festival
Thursday, Sept 10 – Sunday, Sept 20, 2015
Various locations
tiff.net