The exact midpoint of the 23rd edition of NewFest just happens to fall on the first day that Empire State inverts can legally tie the knot. But if marriage isn’t your thing, you can still celebrate the fact that this year’s LGBTQ cine-orgy, which includes 58 feature-length works and more than 60 shorts, boasts one of the strongest lineups since Beyoncé went solo.
A sober reminder of the not-too-distant past—when homos were focused not on putting a ring on it but on keeping people alive—the opening-night film, David Weissman’s We Were Here, simply lets its five interviewees recall their experiences living in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Reminiscent of the groundbreaking 1978 doc Word Is Out, Weissman’s generational portrait—four men and a woman, a nurse who poignantly stresses the psychic toll that occurs when “all you were doing was helping people die”—uses music cues and archival footage sparingly; the subjects’ powerful recollections require little embellishment.
In Rent Boys, the latest from Rosa von Praunheim, the veteran chronicler of lavender lives focuses on hustlers in Berlin, many of whom now hail from Eastern European countries. “Hustling is hustling. It has nothing to do with sexuality,” says a physician who volunteers for an outreach center, emphasizing the grim economic realities that lead men, some with wives and children, to become rough trade. Suspending judgment, even of the more unsavory johns he talks to, von Praunheim shows clear compassion for male sex workers, several of whom survived unspeakable childhood abuse—even if he can’t escape asking faux-naïve questions like, “Is it necessary to have a big cock to become a hustler?”
The prepubescent heroine of Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy fashions a tiny cock out of Play-Doh. After gangly, short-haired Laure (impressive Zoé Héran) and her family settle into a new apartment, she introduces herself to her neighbors as Mikael, rassling with the boys, going shirtless, and attracting the attention of crushed-out Lisa. When Laure’s gender illusion is exposed, Sciamma handles it with a mostly light touch and shows a real gift for capturing the simultaneously anarchic and highly rule-bound world of kids at play.
Skilled at more flamboyant gender performance, the L.A. voguing and ball-scene queens in Sheldon Larry’s wildly uneven but good-hearted musical Leave It on the Floor compete for vintage-prom realness. Larry’s film—a combination of Glee, Paris Is Burning, and the short-lived Logo series Noah’s Arc—is “dedicated to the thousands of gay and transgendered kids in this country who are still thrown out or who run away from oppressive circumstance[s],” many of them African-American and Latino, who make up most of the ball participants in cities across the country. Undermined by a sudsy script and wobbly acting, LIOTF at least concludes with a Willi Ninja–worthy finale.
Another kind of stage—the tennis court—serves as the backdrop for even more dramatic transformation. In his documentary Renée, Eric Drath traces how Richard Raskind, an alpha-male ophthalmologist with a mean left-handed serve, became Renée Richards, who played on the professional women’s tennis circuit from 1977 to 1981 (after having gender-reassignment surgery in 1975). Supported by the top competitors of the time, such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova (whom Richards would later coach), the six-foot-two player, seen in archival clips wearing a femmey tennis bonnet and resembling Glenn Close, admits today to being “an unwitting role model.” Though Drath is prone to fatuous voiceover, he’s assembled insightful interviews: One longtime friend, discussing Richards’s traditionalism, notes, “Renée’s image of herself was really of a ’50s woman, not a ’70s woman.”
Speaking of traditional, Andrew Haigh’s simple love story Weekend, which has already played extensively on the festival circuit and opens in New York in September, is still worthy of its NewFest centerpiece berth. An art fag and a semi-closeted lifeguard meet at a Nottingham, U.K., gay bar, then spend the next 48 hours having sex, talking, drugging, drinking, and letting down their guard. They clash over gay marriage—a heated dispute that only brings them closer together.