A film-within-a-film is a well-worn narrative conceit, but one that seems more complicated in the context of a documentary. Madeleine Sackler’s extraordinary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It was shot entirely at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. (The occasional animated interludes were done by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz With Bashir.) The incarcerated men there are both subjects and filmmakers in Sackler’s construction, talking about their lives in front of the camera while learning film lingo and devices from the classroom environment Sackler creates.
We sit in on the filmmaking lectures Sackler delivers to the inmates. (At the same time this was going on, she shot a separate feature at the prison: the narrative piece O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and also showing at Tribeca.) During the sessions, the men interview each other about their experiences and discuss what they want to add to the final cut of the movie. We witness the canny results first-hand, as when the men decide to finally share — midway through, after we’ve gotten to know them — their sentences and crimes in the form of onscreen text just below their faces. Poverty, abuse, addiction, and racism all play familiar roles in these stories. But the haunting exchange that best illustrates the divide between the men and the director (who hails from a wealthy Connecticut family), along with most of us who see the film, comes when one of the inmates expresses incredulity at the fact that none of Sackler’s former high-school classmates have either been murdered or killed someone.
He asks, “No one?”
She replies, with certainty and sadness, “No one.”
Writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 film Appropriate Behavior (in which she starred) was a loose, autobiographical jaunt through queer women’s experiences in New York City, could not have picked a more different approach for her second feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). An adaptation (Akhavan wrote it with Cecilia Frugiuele) of Emily M. Danforth’s popular YA novel, the film takes place in Nineties Montana, mostly in an isolated teen residential program that implements Evangelical Christian, anti-queer “reparative” therapy. The script omits the verbose source material’s many tangents and spins its lively, last third into a more cohesive whole.
I had been worried in the lead-up that Chloë Grace Moretz would be too femme to play Cameron, who is a butch athlete in the book. But Moretz’s appalled face in reaction to the program’s dogma, along with her other responses to life in the facility, won me over. A poker-faced “good” is how Cameron invariably replies to staff questions about how she’s progressing. After Erin, a fellow “disciple” (as the teens in the program are called), catches her shoplifting, Moretz’s Cameron quickly adds a disingenuous, “I feel so ashamed,” to keep Erin from telling staff. Sasha Lane, whom writer-director Andrea Arnold famously plucked from the mass of college students during spring break to star in American Honey, proves a delightful comic presence in Miseducation as Jane, another resistant teen at the facility. Her skeptical, liquid stares say as much as her expertly delivered punchlines.
The repressive setting would be, in a less nuanced film, a site of unadulterated horror. But Cameron, Jane, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), like queer people through the ages, find ways to bond, joke, and help each other through the circumstances. When something terrible does happen (eliciting gasps in the audience, as it does for readers of the book), the experience cements the three together with newfound determination.
Call Her Ganda, a documentary from Filipinx American PJ Raval (Trinidad), covers the trial of an American Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, for the killing of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in Olongapo City, Philippines. The 2014 incident occurred in a motel across the street from the disco where the two had met earlier one evening. The case, and the dismissive reaction to it, prompts outrage from Jennifer’s devoted sister, mother, and fiancé, as well as a spirited legal battle from the family’s pro bono lawyer, Virgie Suarez. As the murder of Rita Hester did in the U.S. two decades ago, Laude’s death galvanizes the trans community to take to the streets in protest. Owing to colonialist influence, any crime American service members committed in the Philippines had never previously been brought to court. Pemberton’s lawyers attempt to justify his actions as “trans panic,” an enraging defense that’s been used in the U.S. in murder cases with trans women victims.
The doc also follows trans Filipina investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, who has lived in the United States since she was a child, as she returns to her birthplace to extensively report on the case for VICE, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, known globally for the mass killing of his own citizenry, even plays a peripheral role, manipulating anti-colonial sentiment around the case (and others like it) to win votes. In the end, the verdict appeases neither side, but it has had lasting effects on the trans community and has set a long-overdue precedent for holding individuals in the American military responsible for heinous crimes.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional release of Every Act of Life (written and directed by Jeff Kaufman), a wonderful documentary on the prolific playwright Terrence McNally. McNally’s life has the sweep of an epic novel, except that the novel’s inevitable movie version could never have as much star power as his life did. Edward Albee was his first boyfriend. Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald both affirm they wouldn’t have their careers without him. Angela Lansbury was the one who told him to get sober. He even had a brief, secret relationship with the acclaimed playwright Wendy Wasserstein. (His brother reports that seeing the two of them in a romantic kiss made him think, “He has a girlfriend?!”) He also was one of the first playwrights to put queer life and characters front-and-center in his work. Even though, as his husband, Thomas Kirdahy asserts, cancer surgery has left McNally with a total of less than one functioning lung, he’s still energetic and writing new pieces — and having them produced.
The film conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist. Over two decades into McNally’s stellar career, when the script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart — a highly anticipated play for “his favorite actors” — was handed to the ensemble, only one member, Christine Baranski, summoned up the courage to tell him it sucked. McNally took it home, rewrote it, and it ran for over a year Off-Broadway. Four years later, he wrote Master Class, which went on to win Tonys for its stars (Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald) and for McNally himself — another inspiring chapter in a life full of them.