Diverse Portraits Of Queer Lives Kick Off Pride Month

LGBTQ+ Watchlist Features Somber Biopic, Genial Rom-Com, Hit Netflix Series


Ruben Rosario, Film Critic

June is here, and that means many social media feeds are bursting at the seams with the colors of the rainbow. Pride Month gives LGBTQ+ communities across the globe a chance to celebrate the diversity and myriad identities that make them special. Such ebullience spills over onto the media we consume, including what lights up our screens, be it your tablet, laptop, flatscreen, or the nifty 4K projection at your local multiplex.

The first weekend in June will also see thousands flock to Walt Disney World for Gay Days, at least if the tropical system making its way across the Gulf of Mexico doesn't dampen the fun. But if you're disillusioned by what the greedy Mouse has been up to this year (more on that later) and are staying put, there are quite a few options for those jonesing for a gratifying dose of the lavender screen, at home and in theaters.

This week's selections consist of two works from the United Kingdom, an ideal way for anglophiles to ring in Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee, as well as an old-fashioned romantic comedy from the U.S. inspired by a beloved novel from a Brit-lit household name. Let's dive in, shall we?



Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in a scene from


Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in a scene from "Benediction." (Photo Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.)

Terence Davies gravitates toward broken people like a moth to a flame. The English auteur's latest screen biography continues his exploration of literary figures that he began with "A Quiet Passion," his insightful portrait of Emily Dickinson. His muse has led him to a more conventional place than his previous works, particularly his early autobiographical efforts.

But the "Downton Abbey" crowd needs to take heed: despite its inviting appearances, attractive cast, and "Masterpiece Theater" vibe of the film's promotional materials, this isn't lighthearted tea-and-crumpets fare. It's heavy stuff, albeit in illuminating and accessible ways, so there's no need to be intimidated by its gravity.

Davies' subject this time around is poet Siegfried Sassoon (1866-1967), a decorated British Army officer whose vivid verses detailed life in the trenches during World War I and gave a voice to the servicemen who didn't have anyone to speak for them. Davies ("The House of Mirth," "The Deep Blue Sea") juxtaposes passages from Sassoon's poems, recited in voiceover by star Jack Lowden, with archival footage of men in the front lines. The marriage of monochrome strife and evocative stanzas reverberates off the screen.

Jack Lowden in a scene from


Jack Lowden in a scene from "Benediction." (Photo Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.)

When Sassoon becomes an outspoken critic of the continuation of the war, his superiors cart him off to a military psychiatric hospital, ostensibly to teach this thorn in their path a lesson. (The scene where he confronts the brass shows Lowden hitting just the right note of defiance and insolence.) Knowing the devastating ways Davies brings down the hammer, I braced for the inevitable chamber of horrors. But what Sassoon faces at the hospital is a chance to look inward. Intuiting he has nothing to lose, the gay writer comes out to W.H.R. Rivers (character actor Ben Daniels), the doctor treating him, and fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). To his surprise, the good doctor comes out to him in return.

The heart of the film is the bond Sassoon develops with Owen, initially as a mentor, but it's clear there are stronger feelings at play. A scene where they part ways hit me like a ton of bricks. That the actors are so restrained makes the moment even more affecting.

After the war ends, "Benediction" increasingly becomes more about the conflict taking place inside Sassoon. He may look fashionable in his silk ties, but underneath the chic wardrobe, the author continues to grapple with his sexual identity, so naturally he looks for emotional stability in men who have no interest in romance. Enter Ivor Novello ("War Horse's" Jeremy Irvine). The popular composer and dramatist, a vain and conceited prima donna, is also charismatic enough to turn Sassoon's head. Sassoon's mother, Theresa Thornycroft (Geraldine James), speaks for the rest of us when she sees right through Novello. "He's amusing but unpleasant," she tells her son. "It's his eyes, I think. They're cruel."

Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in a scene from


Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in a scene from "Benediction." (Photo: Laurence Cendrowicz of Roadside Attractions)

Davies dutifully charts the peaks and valleys of Sassoon's personal life, occasionally flashing forward to the poet's later years. ("Doctor Who's" Peter Capaldi capably conveys the older Sassoon's sour disposition and the dissatisfaction that led him to convert to Catholicism.)

But this is where "Benediction," otherwise a well-paced biopic, gets bogged down. While it's clear to see why the director sees fit to depict the ways in which gay men tear one another down, the withering remarks and snippy comebacks become repetitive, and not nearly as compelling as the portion of the film set during the war. Despite playing an odious harpy, Irvine fares best out of the revolving door of prospective beaus. He is a hoot and a half, precisely because his Novello is so insufferable.

But "Benediction" is Lowden's liturgy. Reminiscent of the younger Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender, the prolific actor ("Dunkirk," the Apple TV+ series "Slow Horses") inhabits the role with an understated grace that, in a perfect world, would make him a contender for year-end plaudits. He carries this stirring character study on his capable shoulders, bolstered by Davies' rich dialogue and languorous mise en scene. It may not reach the heights of the filmmaker's best work, but as a glimpse into an artist's turmoil, the pain behind the urge to put pen to paper, it is never less than compelling.

"Fire Island"

Bowen Yang, Tomás Matos, Joel Kim Booster, Matt Rogers, Margaret Cho and Torian Miller in a scene from


Bowen Yang, Tomás Matos, Joel Kim Booster, Matt Rogers, Margaret Cho and Torian Miller in a scene from "Fire Island." (Photo: Searchlight Pictures)

Davies is not the only gay filmmaker using an acclaimed English author as the creative spark behind their most recent work. "Driveways" director Andrew Ahn goes mainstream, with reasonably buoyant results, in this breezy rom-com that doubles as a love letter to the titular summer destination off Long Island. Featuring an eclectic multicultural cast but zeroing in on a trio of Asian American characters, the Searchlight Pictures release declares its affinity with Jane Austen in general and "Pride and Prejudice" in particular from its opening moments.

Instead of the feisty Elizabeth Bennet, we get Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also penned the screenplay), a New York City-based nurse who relishes playing the field and sneers at the very thought of monogamy. His mission and he has chosen to accept it, is to ensure his nerdy best bud Howie (Bowen Yang) gets laid during their annual trip to the gay mecca along with their mutual friends, the sassy duo of Keegan (Tomás Matos) and Luke (Matt Rogers) and heavy-set bookworm Max (Torian Miller).

Conrad Ricamora and Joel Kim Booster in a scene from


Conrad Ricamora and Joel Kim Booster in a scene from "Fire Island" (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.)

Welcoming the group with open arms is lesbian mother hen Erin (Margaret Cho), whose house will serve as home base for their weeklong stay. It doesn't take long for them to cross paths with a group of rich friends who are also in town to enjoy the sights. Snobbery and snap judgments ensue, just as surely as a rainbow follows a downpour. And yet, the class divide is not so neatly delineated. Some of these elite visitors are actually not terrible people.

For instance, shy and withdrawn Howie befriends Charlie (James Scully from the Netflix series "You"), a kind, soft-spoken doctor who's a curve ball Noah didn't see coming. Noah, on the other hand, butts head with the brooding Will (Conrad Ricamora), a high-powered attorney who appears to have made up his mind about our protagonist and his loud friends. Even viewers with a vague recollection of past "Pride and Prejudice" adaptations will know they've just met "Fire Island's" Mr. Darcy.

It's undeniably fun to spot Austen's ironclad story beats, which Ahn and Booster make no attempts to disguise. That intense argument in the rain you may remember fondly? It's here, pretty much intact. But the filmmakers are also fond of indulging in broad humor that falls on its face about as often as it lands. Supporting characters like Keegan and Luke remain one-dimensional comic relief; too often, they hew to the most obvious aspects of a specific type. And for every lucid observation about their characters' hangups, Booster inserts a couple of instantly dated pop culture references.

James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in a scene from


James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in a scene from "Fire Island." (Photo: Searchlight Pictures)

Also, despite Ahn's refusal to shy away from sex, "Fire Island's" charm is further compromised by a puritanical streak that turns up its nose at promiscuity, makes sexual activity the butt of a physical joke or uses it as a plot point to bring about a scheming character's comeuppance. Copulation is depicted in a mechanical, perfunctory manner. There's little joy in it. There is also a double standard in the way everyone in Noah's orbit except plus-sized Max, the film's sole major Black character, gets to take off their shirts. A pleasingly plump figure should be something to champion, but the makers of this film didn't get the memo.

The results are alternately appealing and irksome, but "Fire Island" is redeemed by an appropriately dashing Ricamora (it's the ears) and his palpable chemistry with Booster. Even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, it's satisfying to see the characters' animosity morph into affection. They make this genial concoction, "The Big Chill" by way of "Queer as Folk," thoroughly watchable, and they prove that distilling Austen's 209-year-old novel of manners for contemporary audiences is pretty hard to screw up.

Which makes it doubly disappointing that Disney, which owns Searchlight Pictures, has opted to send "Fire Island" directly to Hulu, do not pass Go. The move comes months after the greedy Mouse's execs did the same to "Deep Water," a deliciously cheeky erotic thriller from "Fatal Attraction" director Adrian Lyne, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. The decision implies the studio regards Ahn's film, which had all the makings of a sleeper hit, as niche entertainment that's too much of a gamble to roll the dice on a theatrical rollout.

This kind of compartmentalization feels discomfitingly close to being placed in the closet, tacit lip service that stops short of enthusiastic support. This is one summer release that deserved more TLC.


Kit Connor and Joe Locke in a scene from Season 1 of


Kit Connor and Joe Locke in a scene from Season 1 of "Heartstopper." (Photo: Netflix.)

Besides, viewers encompassing the entire range of the Kinsey scale already have this sublime English series as a streaming option. It is a very rare thing for this critic to review longform TV, but a roundup of Pride Month viewing options would be incomplete without including this gem of a show. Adapted from Alice Oseman's webcomic, which has since been collected into several graphic novels, the Netflix series traces the fierce connection that develops between two boys at the fictional Truham Graham School.

Year 10 student Charlie (newcomer Joe Locke) is still licking his wounds from having been outed when he is seated next to Year 11 student Nick (Kit Connor) in form class, an U.K. variation on homeroom. We think we know where the dynamic between this mismatched pair is headed: vulnerable Charlie is propped up and defended by his stoic and strong new classmate.

But "Heartstopper" doesn't quite play out that way. Instead, Charlie, despite his baggage, is clearly seen as the most confident of the two. He triggers something in Nick, a popular rugby player who suddenly finds himself questioning just who he is and what he is doing hanging with an "in" crowd he suddenly discovers he never really liked that much in the first place.

Kit Connor and Joe Locke in a scene from Season 1 of


Kit Connor and Joe Locke in a scene from Season 1 of "Heartstopper." (Courtesy of Netflix.)

The series begins in a bright but deceptively mundane fashion, which has led some friends of mine to dismiss it as something that's not for them. But it doesn't take long for the show's first season, written by Oseman and beautifully directed by Euros Lyn, to open up like a flower. A friendship blooms between the boys, which is initially dismissed by Charlie's hetero film geek buddy Tao (William Gao) as just another unrequited crush.

Their mutual trans friend Elle (Yasmin Finney), meanwhile, has transferred to an all-girls school after being bullied at Truham. At her new school, she befriends classmates Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), and from that point on, these teens' lives intersect in organic and believable ways. Even better, the supporting characters are just as fleshed out as the protagonists, down to Truham art teacher Mr. Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade), who offers Charlie pearls of wisdom and his empty classroom when the teen wants to be by himself.

Connor, who played Elton John as a child in "Rocketman," has justly emerged as "Heartstopper's" revelation. He imbues floppy-haired Nick with multiple layers: an innate sense of justice and growing devotion for his friend, in battle with a deep-seated insecurity and fear of being ostracized. A delicate scene at a friend's birthday party that gives the boys a moment alone together captures a specific coming-of-age moment that's about as well rendered as the YA genre has seen. It must be mentioned that Locke's pitch-perfect line delivery seals the deal here. That was the moment I fell into "Heartstopper's" arms.

Olivia Colman and Kit Connor in a scene from Season 1 of


Olivia Colman and Kit Connor in a scene from Season 1 of "Heartstopper." (Photo: Netflix)

But then the show keeps springing one soul-tingling delight after another, peppering key moments with flashes of animation that create a hybrid between live-action and the flowing panels of its source material. The uniformly excellent cast has no need for an A-lister, but "Heartstopper" casually brings out its not-so-secret weapon: Olivia Colman's brief but lovely turn as Nick's mom.

"Heartstopper" is nothing short of a minor miracle: a wish-fulfillment fantasy that yields more truths about the human condition than many more realistic portraits of adolescence. It's an exuberant playground, a verdant garden powered by a torrent of tenderness. It understands that the hardest thing for a young person discovering they may be different from the others is to let the object of their affection know exactly how they feel. Then it puts us in their shoes, making us feel that distinctive mixture of elation and sheer terror.

Relax and take a deep breath, "Heartstopper." I like you. I really like you.

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