Queer Coming-of-Age is More Than Just a Phase

coming_of_age_1As I was facing a dual coming out, first as a transgender woman, then later as a gay woman, I relied very heavily on any faint sliver of queer cinema I could find for guidance with my emotional development. I didn’t find as massive a wealth of options as heterosexual viewers have, since both mainstream and independent film have prioritized heterosexual dynamics and coming-of-age queries for decades. It still does to this day, but we’re starting to get to a point where I can feel disappointed by a queer coming-of-age film and not feel like it’s a massively missed opportunity. In the process, though, I’ve discovered a particularly telling trend in a lot of such films lately: queer coming-of-age doesn’t always stick.

From last year’s gut-churning psychological drama Respire to even the most appraised example in Abdellatif Kechiche’s intimate epic Blue is the Warmest Color, European LGBTQ cinema has had a difficult time shaking the sense that young queer awakening is just an experimental phase, unlikely to stick in the future. It’s become so recurring that I’ve come to dread the endings of these films, when the sense that queer desire lacks as rich a future as more conventional hetero-longing. It’s a factor I couldn’t entirely divorce from Lithuanian romance The Summer of Sangailė (2015), which deservedly won the World Dramatic Cinema Directing award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

coming_of_age_2Centering in on two women who meet at an airshow, Auste, a vivid costume designer – one of the film’s principal joys is her daft, florid costume sensibilities – and Sangaile, whose dreams of flight are plagued by her intense vertigo. Sangaile is more than up for Auste’s peculiar costume challenges, from posing playfully next to a tapeworm to cathartically cutting themselves with the promise to never cut further, but is fearful and defensive when Auste pushes her to face her fears and accomplish her dreams. The bond the two foster is radiantly joyous and director Alantė  Kavaitė more than earns her Sundance award, employing cautious, but curious, restraint in dissecting the subtle advances and encouragements that bring people together.

But Kavaite struggles in validating Auste and Sangaile’s relationship, both as a productive partnership and as an important cornerstone in their lives. We never see their relationship tested in public social circles, though the film’s refreshing, open atmosphere is far from one of hostility. It’s the film’s ending that struggles most in maintaining the validity of their passion for one another. As their divergent, exciting futures come into focus, the film starts suggesting that their mutual desire is more of a catalyst for self-actualization, rather than a connection worth developing and protecting. Surely, such passionate love cannot fall apart so cleanly and with so little struggle.

coming_of_age_3One film not given to defeatism about queer desire is Fucking Amal (1999), popularly known by its kitschy U.S. re-titling Show Me Love. The abrasive title is fitting for a film awash uncomfortable close-ups on our two protagonists, one confident of her desires, the other in reluctant denial of them. Agnes is a socially ostracized teen lesbian, roughly confident in her sexuality but less so with her crippling isolation. Elin is a typically popular blonde desperate to latch on to what’s cool – “I’m going to be a lesbian”, she says with straight girl naivety about the hows and whys of attraction. She may be more right than she’d ultimately prefer. Through a chain of embarrassments and casual teenage cruelties, Agnes and Elin end up pushed together and bonding over the stagnant mediocrety of their lives in Amal, Sweden. The mutual aggravation with their small town limitations is a better namesake than a tossed off song lyric over the end credits.

One film not given to defeatism about queer desire is Fucking Amal (1999), popularly known by its kitschy U.S. re-titling Show Me Love. The abrasive title is fitting for a film awash uncomfortable close-ups on our two protagonists, one confident of her desires, the other in reluctant denial of them. Agnes is a socially ostracized teen lesbian, roughly confident in her sexuality but less so with her crippling isolation. Elin is a typically popular blonde desperate to latch on to what’s cool – “I’m going to be a lesbian”, she says with straight girl naivety about the hows and whys of attraction. She may be more right than she’d ultimately prefer. Through a chain of embarrassments and casual teenage cruelties, Agnes and Elin end up pushed together and bonding over the stagnant mediocrety of their lives in Amal, Sweden. The mutual aggravation with their small town limitations is a better namesake than a tossed off song lyric over the end credits.

coming_of_age_4Both The Summer of Sangaile and Fucking Amal depict these periods of becoming as free from the toxic social expectations of the larger world. That freedom from prejudice has been understandably absent in films focusing on less privileged characters. Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011) gets its very title from such ostracism, taking that confrontation as a badge of affirmation. We start already submerged in the luminosity of Brooklyn’s lesbian nightlife, with black teen lesbian Alike (Adepero Oduye) already confident of her sexuality, if well practiced at concealing it from her constricting, conventional parents. Her frustration with closeted identity is just as much our own, as every relationship she maneuvers is defined by secrecy and misinformation. It’s tough for conflict or catharsis to exist in a vacuum.

But Pariah doesn’t remain closed in its main character’s psychology, branching out to cover the conflicts and concerns of her friends and family. It’s very much a personal portrait as defined by the denying and presumptive perspectives of those around her, from her fiercely judgmental mother to a romantic interest not nearly as formed in her sexuality as Alike. The downside of that community focus is it reveals how simplistically Rees expanded upon her short film of the same name. She doesn’t so much paint deeper into her source material as illustrate around it. At times it reads as the short plus extra baggage. It’s to Rees’ credit, as well as cinematographer Bradford Young, that Alike’s emerging identity is captured as luminously and intimately as it is here, cloaked in obscuring darkness with sharp, sleek flashes of light revealing her disguised feelings.

coming_of_age_5Despite their differences, generational, racial and socio-economic, these are all at least overtly queer narratives, free of the coding and intentional obfuscation that might keep them in straight territory. Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) has no overtly queer moments, but perhaps that’s to its benefit. Few films express the fluidity of gender and sexual identity in our teenage years with as much radiant freedom of expression. Its French title, Bande de Filles, is equally apt in expressing Sciamma’s fascination with public communal identity. Centering in on black teen Marieme (Karidja Touré) – kicked out of school and dreading the working class future of her scarcely present mother – as she immerses herself in a gang of girls left similarly south of the mainstream societal system.

It’s not a romance, but their group relationship gathers moments of catharsis that rival the most heated sex scene. The film’s standout moment sees them flushed in sapphire light, their every radiant detail visibly alive, as they sing Rihanna’s dreamy and evocative “Diamond.” It’s cultural appropriation of the most radical variety, beckoning our gaze only so far as it serves their glory. But transcendence only lasts so briefly before the world commands the girls into societal or underground positions. As Marieme becomes more immersed in the latter, the invasive, exotic and male gazes swarm around her, no less radiantly, but with intense claustrophobia and denial. Even Marieme’s sweet boyfriend Ismaél (charmingly played by Idrissa Diabaté ) can’t quite give her the life she wants. Ultimately none can but herself, and though the path Sciamma’s ending lays out for her is profoundly uncertain – where do you go when you’ve rejected every societal position built for you? – her confidence in facing it defies cynicism and despair in the most luminous of ways.