NEWFEST Reviews: ‘Dating Amber,’ ‘Forgotten Roads,’ ‘ Monsoon,’ ‘ Two of Us,’ and ‘Uncle Frank’
David Freyne’s Dating Amber takes gays back to high school. A charming comedy of a relatable experience where sex is on everyone’s mind and where they feel pressured to have it. An environment of puberty and horniness, and where sexuality is always under suspicion. If you’re a guy and too girly, you’re gay. If you’re a girl and too manly, you’re gay. It’s a time of confusion mixed with internalized homophobia. Where the fear of rumors is met with denials. It’s an environment full of pressures: the pressure to fit in and the pressure to live up to the expectations of parents, peers, and society. It’s a time of inauthenticity, where being your true self seems impossible. The film’s main characters, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), take us back to those hard times.
Set in a small Irish army town in 1995, Eddie and Amber are similar in many ways. Eddie’s dad is an important figure in the Irish army and is gone for half the year. His parents fight constantly. It’s a home that feels broken. Amber is also from a home that feels broken and knows the absence of a father, although in a much more permanent way. Eddie and Amber are also gay. They’re made fun of at school and called homophobic slurs all because they’re not dating anyone. They both deny it, of course, but these “rumors” about each other bring them closer. They decide to date to shut everyone up, and a touching relationship blossoms. They make fun of each other, experience firsts together, and find a friend they can be themselves with. It’s funny watching them in their discomfort as they hold hands, cuddle, and kiss. It’s a touching dynamic and emotional, too, as they feel accepted for the first time, but fear still lingers. This arrangement can only work for so long.
Dating Amber is a showcase of wonderful performances by O’Shea and Petticrew. Petticrew is fiery as Amber, a young feminist in the making as she speaks in frustration of the constructs of the patriarchy. And O’Shea is able to capture all the self-hatred and loneliness that comes with refusing to accept what you can’t change. Through him, we see the long road to happiness. It balances its serious subject with a lighter tone perfectly, creating one of the best comedies of the year about how hard it is to say two words, and how powerful it is when you do.
Forgotten Roads may clock in at only 71 minutes, but it does a lot in its tiny package. The narrative is interesting because it centers on this small, conservative Chilean town obsessed with UFO sightings. And yet, the townsfolk alienate everyone who’s different. It makes no sense but confronts how religious beliefs can be hypocritical. They worship these lights in the sky, these unnatural beings, but air their disgust at same-sex love.
Nicol Ruiz Benavides’s film celebrates older women in love much like Two of Us, another film highlighted here. It begins with Claudina (Rosa Ramírez), a repressed widow from the countryside. When she comes under financial strain, she leaves the farm she once shared with her husband and moves into the city to live with her daughter and grandson. The film’s central love story begins when Claudina meets Elsa (Romana Satt), her daughter’s neighbor. She’s enamored by her and her hypnotic singing voice. She’s married, however; her husband is always away for work. They strike up a lovely friendship, and as they get to know each other, the independent Elsa brings the suppressed Claudina out of her shell. She opens up to Elsa, admitting that she was never in love with her husband, but rather, she’s always been attracted to women. Elsa invites Claudina to discover what true love feels like.
It’s a feel-good film in a way as we see Claudina transform into her true self, and with an incredibly moving performance by Ramírez. She’s content, sneaking off to Elsa’s house in the middle of the night like a schoolgirl. It’s infectious seeing them together. She also meets and bonds with a young teenage lesbian, giving each other inspiration and hope that emphasizes how supportive the LGBTQ community is. It’s not Claudina’s only encounter with the community, however. As they must find a way to escape the town’s conservative restraints, they gather in a mysterious underground club, and it feels like a completely different world – it’s extraterrestrial. It also includes one of the film’s many dazzling shots as a beam of light covers Elsa as she sings.
It’s a beautiful film, but with a disappointing ending. It’s predictable in a way, sure, but the magic of the whole thing dimmers because of it. Despite this, Forgotten Roads still achieves what it sets out to do: create a film about freedom.
Imagine traveling to a country where you look the same as its people and are treated as such by tourists. They look at you with reluctance as they speak slowly, emphasizing the pronunciation of every word. But you know the language they speak more than the language of your homeland. This is what happens to Kit (Henry Golding) on his trip to Vietnam in writer-director Hong Khaou’s Monsoon. It’s a homecoming for him, but he’s a stranger to the country now – a tourist. He fled Vietnam as a refugee when he was only a child and has returned for the first time in 30 years to spread his parents’ ashes.
The audience and Kit are introduced to the sounds of Vietnam first and foremost – the bustling streets are intense and restless. Kit’s in awe, anxious even, of all the chaos in a homeland unfamiliar. But in all the noise, Monsoon is also incredibly still; contemplative as Kit tries to relive old memories in a city that’s no longer the one he remembers. Nothing feels rights, and this cultural confusion is sure to resonate with many viewers. As the film is told through a Western lens, the perspective of a young man born in Vietnam but raised in London, you feel his desperation to understand his identity. As first-generation immigrants can attest, Kit doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere. He doesn’t look like everyone else in London, and there’s a cultural dissonance between him and where he was born.
Amid this identity crisis, he finds solace in the arms of a young American man, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), whose father served in the Vietnam war. Both are lost in a way as they contemplate the war that tore both of their worlds apart on opposing sides. Their dynamic is playful and their romance is steamy. A tender, meaningful relationship that illustrates how Kit is falling in love all over again, as a gay man and also as a Vietnamese one.
One of the most introspective films of the year stars an actor who knows all too well what it’s like to be Kit, which only enhances the film’s authenticity. While the narrative feels underdeveloped at times as it explores many elements that end up remaining unclear, it’s an important picture of Vietnamese culture and how the scars of war are still present. We see how this has affected the younger generations as they grow up with parents who want to forget their trauma, but in doing so, their children aren’t provided with a clear picture of who they are. Monsoon is a travelogue of rediscovering roots and the importance of remembering where you came from.
Two of Us is about two people who are very much in love. Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) and Nina (Barbara Sukowa) are middle-aged lesbians, but the age thing rarely phases them. They still dream, they still desire. Through their relationship, director Filippo Meneghetti and co-writer Malysone Bovorasmy explore the intersection between expectation and self. Both characters are from a generation that despised anything that went against heteronormativity. They lived in that kind of world for so long that coming out of it proves harder than they ever realized. This is especially true for Madeleine – a mother, a grandmother, and someone carrying a secret for decades whose weight is becoming too much to bear. She has sacrificed happiness and lied in fear of losing her family which results in losing herself in the process. Coming out seems impossible for her, but she has Nina by her side. However, as the film presents its slice of life narrative, there’s a separation between them, and not just by the hallway that separates their two apartments. An event causes a separation unlike any they could have foreseen. It’s not a breakup, but something that makes your heart ache even more. A separation that’s almost unbearable to watch, but the leaps that are taken to stay together are heartwarming and presents a love so fiery that it can never be diminished even when some try.
Two of Us is absolutely beautiful. Not only because its gorgeous scenic and intimate cinematography allow complete immersion into the heart of this relationship, but it’s also especially beautiful and refreshing to see two older women as sexual beings in all their yearning. It’s also a difficult watch due to the film’s central conflict which is only emphasized by the intimate cinematography and score that fuel the loneliness of a life kept secret and a love separated. A film that looks at the bitterness and unacceptance of children, the many consequences and regrets of hiding a part of yourself, and the hard road to accepting one’s self and others. As the two leads, Chevallier and Sukowa are phenomenal as they take on such emotionally demanding roles and a wholehearted display of love – every frame overflowing with it.
Writer-director Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank is a roller coaster of emotion. A film that hits hard as it tells the story of a closeted gay man in the ‘70s – one that could still be told today. The man is Frank (Paul Bettany), and the film feels like a love letter from his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis). This family drama with all the bigotted Southern charm begins as most of them do: at a family gathering. Beth and Frank spend most of their time together. Beth explains that her uncle is the only one who shows her any interest. He’s a superstar professor living in New York – the only one who got the hell out of their small town. He’s fascinating. He’s different. He inspires her to dream big, and four years later, she’s going to NYU. But one night, she crashes a party Frank’s hosting and he comes out to her. The film then hones in on their relationship further. How it changes, or how it doesn’t.
Uncle Frank is a road trip movie for much of its middle section as Beth, Frank, and his boyfriend Wally (an uninvited party on this trip played by Peter Macdissi) make their way back home for Frank’s father’s funeral. Facing this moment in his life is a frightening ordeal for Frank. All deaths of parents are, but his father despised him; despised that his son was an abomination in God’s eye. Because of that, this road trip becomes one of self-reflection. Frank faces the trauma of his past and he must learn to take the advice he once gave to Beth: Be the person you want to be, not the person everyone else wants you to be.
Bettany delivers a powerful, nuanced performance. It’s a heartbreaking one, too; the stoic Frank breaking down as the self-loathing he’s carried since childhood gets the better of him. This also feels like a much more mature role and performance for Lillis unlike we’ve ever seen her. Her scenes with Bettany are so entertaining to watch. They open up about relationships and sexuality, but you can see that Frank’s wall is still up. It’s a heavy film at times, which is lightened by a hilarious and charming performance by Macdissi. An interracial romance for a film of this period is a fantastic choice as it shows this cultural dynamic where the punishment of homosexuals may be more severe in Saudi Arabia where Wally is from, but he also knows all too well what it’s like to want to flee your childhood to save yourself.
Frank’s sister says, “Frank, it’s 1973,” like homophobia is a thing of the past. But almost 60 years later, it still exists. We still fear that our sexuality will ruin our family’s love for us. Will there ever be a time when it’s not scary?