The programmers of the Miami portion of the 2016 MiFo Film Festival, running from April 22-May 1, have stumbled upon an interesting cinematic trend. At least four of the best films showing during the first week deal with queer teens and the coming out process in various parts of the world. Below are reviews of two films, one set in Ohio and one in Canada. (Advance tickets are available at mifofilm.com).
Co-directed by Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell (with a screenplay by O’Donnell), Akron (Towpath Productions) is a well-made indie feature with strong and memorable performances. A recipient of numerous awards and nominations on the film festival circuit, Akron was runner-up for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature when it was screened at the Fort Lauderdale segment of MiFo.
Akron opens with a tragedy in a supermarket parking lot. Carol (Amy da Luz) accidentally hits and kills Davy, the eldest of Lorena’s (Andréa Burns) two young sons, with her minivan.
Fast forward to the present day, Benny (Matthew Frias), the younger brother of Davy, is a college freshman, majoring in biomedical engineering major. Not only is Benny smart, but he’s also incredibly hot and athletic. His best friend Julie (Cailan Rose), invites him to take a break from studying and play a game of mudball. Benny’s glad that he does because that’s where he meets equally hot fellow freshman Christopher (Edmund Donovan). Their attraction is immediate.
Benny, who lives off-campus, at home with his mother Lorena, father David (Joseph Melendez) and younger sister Becca (Isabel Machado), shares the news about meeting Christopher with his family, all of whom are unconditionally supportive. Christopher’s divorced mother Carol, who moved away from Akron and lives in Florida, is also a loving and encouraging parent.
After dating for a few months, Benny and Christopher take a Spring Break road-trip together to see Carol. On the day they are hitting the road, Benny brings Christopher home to meet his parents. Everything goes well until Christopher mistakes a framed photo of a boy for Benny. Lenora corrects him, saying it’s a picture of Davy, who died young. In a subtle way, you can see from the expression on Christopher’s face that he quickly put the pieces together. You see, Christopher was in the backseat of the minivan on the day of the accident that took Davy’s life.
Christopher, unsure of how to proceed, whether or not he should say something to Benny or to Carol before she meets Benny, remains tight-lipped. However, we can see the turmoil he’s experiencing. Not long after Benny and Christopher arrive at Carol’s, after they’ve had dinner and retired for a soak in the hot-tub, Carol is also able to make the connection. Naturally, the revelation has an overwhelming impact on Benny, as well.
At this point, Akron become a film about forgiveness, while asking and answering the age-old question about if it’s possible to choose with whom you fall in love. The lead actors, aside from being incredibly nice to look at, give knockout performances bringing the film and the relationship, with all of its complexities to vivid life. Akron is strongly recommended. (Screening on 4/23 at Regal Cinemas South Beach.)
When Oscar (Connor Jessup) was a little boy, instead of telling him a bedtime story, his father Peter (Aaron Abrams) would give him a “dream.” As he made up the dream for Oscar’s sleep, Peter would also blow up a balloon, hold the opening to Oscar’s forehead and let the air escape. This is a wonderful image and not the most surreal one in Closet Monster (Fortissimo Films) by a long shot.
On the last of Oscar’s birthdays, when his parents were still married, Peter and Oscar’s mother Brin (Joanne Kelly) gave him a hamster, and then proceeded to break the news to the boy that Brin was moving out of the house. Oscar, whose vivid imagination got him through many childhood traumas, could hear Buffy the hamster speaking to him, and she sounded just like Isabella Rossellini (!). Oscar’s parents’ divorce began a string of events, including his witnessing some boys bullying a student and raping him with rebar, traumatizing Oscar into his teens.
Now in high school, Oscar and his BFF Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) make plans to go to college in New York. Oscar wants to study make-up and effects for movies. He’s also a good photographer and takes pictures of Gemma for her portfolio. It’s clear from their interactions that Gemma has feelings for Oscar, but he doesn’t feel the same way.
While working at his job at a big box home improvement store, Oscar meets the fittingly named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider of Ville-Marie). Soon they are hanging out together, which is a good thing for Oscar since his home-life with Peter, and occasional visits with Brin and her new family, aren’t go so well. Wilder invites Oscar to a party where Oscar has a bad reaction to the drugs he took, followed by an unsuccessful sexual encounter with sizzling hot Andrew (James Hawksley).
As Oscar, who’s never had it easy and maybe never will, navigates the choppy waters of his life, he alternates between his complex reality and a series of surreal and frightening fantasies, such as vomiting nuts and bolts. For the most part, Closet Monster is a fascinating story about that grey area between adolescence and adulthood. Jessup owns the role of Oscar from the first moment we see him onscreen. However, the graphic fantasy sequences (and less visceral ones including the talking hamster) have a way of interrupting the flow of the movie, and might make you wish that writer/director Stephen Dunn either made things either more or less surreal, not so in-between. (Screening on 4/23 at Regal Cinemas South Beach.)