COMING of age films that focus on queer youth are particularly hard to find, but they are such necessary stories that need to be told and shared. Natalie Ng spotlights a selection of films focusing on the sexuality and coming of age of queer youth.
The coming of age narrative in films has long been a genre that has been explored with great purpose and has produced great films which have become classics over the course of cinema’s history. From Old Hollywood staples like Splendor in the Grass to cult films like The Virgin Suicides, oftentimes these films deal with discovering sexuality and relationships.
However, LGBTQI films remain thin on the ground, and finding LGBTQI coming of age films is even harder. This is particularly disconcerting considering how those formative years for young people are the most confusing ones, and even more so for LGBTQI youth.
In compiling these recommendations, it was frustrating to not only discover how few of these LGBTQI youth-related stories were available but that so many of them were rooted in tragedy.
In choosing the films to feature below, there was a need to feature narratives that show there are stories that exist beyond the “tragic gay narrative” to keep things optimistic.
There is an urgent need for more filmmakers to tell these stories, because stories are powerful in the way they can connect to people. Hopefully in another ten years, these lists will have a much wider and diverse selection in terms of the stories being told.
A deeply sensitive and bittersweet film, Eternal Summer was one of the first few films from Taiwanese cinema in the last decade that began to explore stories of queer youth.
Eternal Summer follows the story of Jonathan (Bryant Chang), Shane (Joseph Chang) and Carrie (Kate Yeung). Jonathan and Shane have been friends since they were kids although they could not be more different. Jonathan is studious and reserved, while Shane is loud, sporty and prone to getting into trouble.
When Carrie arrives from Hong Kong, she takes an interest in Jonathan, but observes that Jonathan has been carrying a torch for Shane. Shane, who initially is annoyed that Carrie is spending all this time with his best friend, ends up asking Carrie to be his girlfriend.
The love triangle is gently and deftly handled by director Leste Chen (20, Once Again) and never veers into unnecessary melodrama. But really it is the tumultuous relationship between Shane and Jonathan that is the emotional heart of the film.
I Killed My Mother
Director wunderkind Xavier Dolan wrote the film I Killed My Mother when he was just 16. The film premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival when he was 19 to much critical acclaim.
The provocative title is only metaphorical, and focuses on the difficult relationship between the teenage protagonist Hubert (played by Dolan himself) and his mother Chantale (Ann Dorval). Hubert also is struggling with coming out to his mother, and finds comfort in the company of his boyfriend Antonin (Francois Arnaud) and his much more understanding mother who encourages their relationship and their interest in art.
In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, Hubert and Antonin do drip paintings a la Jackson Pollock and end up making love. An interesting and emotionally raw film that deals with queer youth and their relationships with their respective mothers, director Dolan would go on to make more critically acclaimed queer films, showing audience that there is a need, a market and the storytellers to tell these stories.
Other gay youth-related films to look out for: Another Country (1984), Maurice (1987), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Mysterious Skin (2004), The History Boys (2006), Heartbeats (2010), Pride (2014), The Way He Looks (2014)
Produced by legendary Hong Kong directors Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan, Miao Miao is a small, intimate film about the first love of teenagers.
At first glance it doesn’t seem like the kind of projects these big directors would be into, but when you look at their work, both Wong and Kwan’s films are all about capturing love and longing on film, and Miao Miao is all about that.
Miao Miao is basically the lesbian themed version of Eternal Summer, which had come out two years prior. Xiao Ai (Sandrine Pinna) befriends a Japanese exchange student who she nicknames Miao Miao (Ko Jia Yen). They search for an old cake shop with ties to Miao Miao’s past only to discover the shop has now turned into music shop run by the moody Chen Fei (Wing Fan).
The three become friends, but things become complicated when Xiao Ai realises Miao Miao might be falling for Chen Fei, only to examine her own feelings and find that she may regard Miao Miao as more than just a friend.
A lighthearted, if a little bittersweet, story about first love, Miao Miao forgoes the traditional ‘tragic gay narrative’ that can usually plague LGBTQI movies for something much sweeter.
It is hard enough finding films about young women of colour. Finding films, and essentially stories of young lesbian women of colour are even rarer and practically non-existent.
Pariah, therefore, is a rare miracle of a film that explores the coming out, and coming of age of a 17-year-old black lesbian teenager, Alike. Alike identifies as a lesbian and starts to come to terms with her identity, but has not officially come out to her parents. Her parents are aware of who she is, but both are victim to ingrained homophobia: her father in denial while her mother passing it off as a phase.
Lead actress Adepero Oduye is superb as Alike and director Dee Rees, a protege of prolific filmmaker Spike Lee, crafts a sensitive, authentic and important film.
In popular culture, TV shows and privileged celebrities tell young people cheerfully about how great it is to be gay, but the fact remains that a lot of parents and loved ones of young gay teenagers are more like Alike’s parents – in denial, tense, angry and terrified. And their reactions, as captured so honestly by the film, are rooted in a very understandable fear. Even if they accept their child, the world is against them, and the greatest fear of any parent is to see their child hurt.
Pariah confronts what it means to be an outcast, and to find the courage to embrace that identity despite all the hurts.
Other lesbian youth-related films to look out for: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Lost & Delirious (2001), My Summer of Love (2004), Be With Me (2005), Water Lilies (2006), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)