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last update 13.May.18
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Alaska Is a Drag
dir-scr Shaz Bennett
prd Shaz Bennett, Jean-Pierre Caner, Diane Becker, Melanie Miller
with Martin L Washington Jr, Maya Washington, Matt Dallas, Christopher O'Shea, Jason Scott Lee, Margaret Cho, Nia Peeples, Kevin Daniels, John Fleck, Adam Tomei, Dan Lemieux, Tim Holmes
washington and washington
release US Jun.17 fff,
UK Mar.18 flare
17/US 1h24

See also:
(2012 short)

flare film festival

Alaska Is a Drag Expanded from a 2012 short, this warm drama centres on three people who feel trapped in the middle of nowhere, trying to make life a bit more colourful than it is. It's a gently involving story, with strongly sympathetic characters who are very well-played by a fresh cast. So it's charming and moving. And even with some rather insistent plot points, it raises important issues without ever preaching about them.

In rural Alaska, Leo (Washington) is mercilessly bullied for being gay, but he can handle himself against the ringleader thug (O'Shea) he works with in the cannery. So he's taken aback when new guy Declan (Dallas) reaches out with friendship. Away from work, Leo and his sister Tristen (Maya Washington) try to have a fabulous life as they plot to escape from their deadbeat preacher dad (Daniels). Tristen's plan is to enter Leo in a drag queen competition in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Leo and Declan flirt as they study boxing with their boss Diego (Lee).

The film is a lively mix of Leo's colourful fantasies and the gritty realities of life in a place where the only gay bar can never advertise itself as one. The story is accompanied by a blur of flashbacks to happier days with their mother (Peeples), plus a series of relaxed adventures in the present day. The connections between Leo, Tristen and Declan are cleverly portrayed in a way that makes them easy to identify with, even in their more outrageous moments.

Washington has terrific presence as Leo, expressing his lively attitude amid the physicality of both boxing and drag, a remarkably clever combination. His interaction with Maya Washington's Tristen bristles with energy: two young people who have grown up taking on the world together. And his growing friendship with Dallas' Declan is complex and intriguing, never taking the expected route because Dallas never plays the role in the obvious ways.

Even though the script deals with a number of big issues, mainly the underlying homophobia in everyday society, Bennett keeps the film centred on the people and their relationships. This includes complicated interaction with those around them, so all of the side characters have intriguing layers that suggest all kinds of meaning. Through all of this, there's also the awkward journey of friendship and possible romance between Leo and Declan. So even when the plot takes a brutal turn, the human element remains compelling.

15 themes, language, violence
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Carter & June
dir Nicholas Kalikow
scr Nicholas Kalikow, Rob Warren Thomas, Matt Post
prd Sean Covel, Diane Richey, Kyle Roper
with Michael Raymond-James, Samaire Armstrong, Timothy Omundson, James Landry Hebert, Lindsay Musil, Paul Rae, Will Beinbrink, Mayra Leal, James Moses Black, Lucky Johnson, Barbara Weetman, Damien Moses
armstrong and raymond-james release US 18.May.18
17/US 1h28
Carter & June Bursting with abrasive machismo from the start, this offbeat action comedy is lurid and profane. Viewers who can set aside the leery, thuggish tone may find some entertainment in the witty heist narrative. There's some fun to be had in this nutty set of desperate characters, none of whom is quite as smart or stupid as they seem. But the caveman mentality is rather exhausting.

With one hare-brained scheme after another, Carter (Raymond-James) is struggling to pay back the debt he owes to the arrogant, violent New Orleans strip club owner Spencer (Omundson). Dominatrix friend Caitlin (Leal) proposes a money-making scam that would double-cross Spencer. But Carter needs help from his ex June (Armstrong), which is handy since he wants her back. Then when their caper spirals out of control, they try to blackmail dopey cop Jason (Hebert) before discovering that they also now have to deal with his double-crossing wife (Musil) and a hard-nosed detective (Black).

Director-cowriter Kalikow guides his cast into seriously over-the-top performances that make the movie feel like a very long comedy sketch. Each character is larger-than-life, flailing to get control of an escalating series of messy events. Meanwhile, all of them are also badly conflicted, trying to get out of their own convoluted crises. The problem is that none of them are remotely believable: they're exaggerated types who behave in deliberately ridiculous ways. And the freewheeling plot twists in gleefully bonkers directions.

Frankly, these people are so obnoxious that there's nobody the audience can root for. Armstrong's June is at least capable and smart. And in trying (and failing) to be achingly cool, Raymond-Lewis makes Carter endearingly pathetic. Omundson's slick-slippery villain is thoroughly absurd, but at least his exasperation is vaguely amusing. Other characters are even more cartoonish, from Hebert's religious dimwit and Musil as his trashy wife to Beinbrink's slimy preacher and Rae's sputtering police commissioner.

The film is shot with visual style that makes it watchable in a lurid sort of way. In the middle of all this, Kalikow shoehorns the gentle reawakening of Carter and June's relationship, which is played sensitively enough to make us wish that the entire film had been directed with a lighter touch. Instead, most scenes are bombastic and misogynistic, with some added insulting religious fanaticism and a hint of homophobia. So the nasty shoot-first ethos feels like the least of this movie's problems.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality

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Dating My Mother
dir-scr Mike Roma
prd Ashley Hillis
with Kathryn Erbe, Patrick Reilly, Kathy Najimy, Michael Rosen, James Le Gros, Sideara St Claire, Paul Iacono, Luke Roberts, Jaime Cepero, Sam Sonenshine, Ruari Fay, Monet X Change
reilly and erbe release US 8.May.18
17/US 1h21
Dating My Mother Colourful and goofy, this comedy has a nicely awkward sense of humour, plus some witty visual flourishes. So it's a shame that the script is both squeamish and moralistic. At least writer-director Mike Roma makes an effort to shatter stereotypes in the story and characters, giving the film a hint of autobiographical realism.

After returning home to small-town New England from Los Angeles, 23-year-old writer Danny (Reilly) spends virtually every waking hour with his mother Joan (Erbe). But this means neither of them has a personal life. So Danny helps her refresh her online dating profile, and Joan's lively friend Lisa (Najimy) encourages her to spark things up. Her first date is with Chester (Le Gros), and it goes better than expected. Meanwhile, Danny has his eye on his stoner pal Khris (Rosen), who isn't gay. And he's also struggling to decide what to do with his life.

Roma cleverly stages the dating-app chats as face-to-face conversations, which heightens the ridiculous nature of online messaging. And there's a refreshing honesty about sex and sexuality. But the script assumes that everyone has the same opinions about several nuanced issues, which makes it feel both presumptive and preachy. So for every astute gag there's another that's eye-rollingly narrow. Often literally so, as characters continually tut and rolls their eyes. Thankfully, the performances are relaxed and realistic, combining comical energy with some emotional depth.

Both Reilly and Erbe are likeable, creating complex characters who are easy to root for as they search for romance. The loose narrative serves them well, allowing them to emerge in unexpected directions. Reilly's depiction of a young man who still hasn't found his groove is sharp and sometimes intriguingly dark. And Danny's close relationship with his mom is never overplayed, which gives both Reilly and Erbe a chance to be funny and wounded. Side roles are much less defined, with Rosen's character oddly sidelined and others around just for a random gag or two.

That said, it's refreshing to see a film in which the dramatic beats are grounded in everyday life. Roma's script never tries to make clashes bigger than they need to be, which allows the characters to emerge as authentic people. And since plot points are never bloated, melodrama is mercifully avoided. This sometimes leaves the film feeling a bit slight, and also rather too sure of itself. But it's always good to be reminded that having a nice life is more than enough.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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A Place to Be
4/5   En Algun Lugar
dir-scr Tadeo Garcia
prd Aric Jackson, Michael J Sanow
with Andrew Saenz, Nelson Rodriguez, Jessie Prez, Ian R Tranberg, Charin Alvarez, Sandra Marquez, Erica Cruz-Hernandez, JJ Romero, Christopher Acevedo, Marialen Magana, David Miranda, Aysette Munoz
rodriguez and saenz release US/UK 14.May.18
17/US 1h52
A Place to Be Inspired by real events, this drama has a loose, relaxed tone that's thoroughly charming as the story tackles an important, timely topic. Characters are engaging and authentic, and their conversations are packed with important themes expressed in deeply personal ways, which keeps the audience engaged even if scenes feel slowly paced. But the story has a powerful momentum to it that's seriously gripping.

In Chicago, harsh new immigration laws are making Mexican-born Diego (Saenz) feel threatened. Out with lively pal Braulio (Prez), he meets social worker Abel (Rodriguez), a nice guy with his own snappy best friend, Stephen (Tranberg). As they get to know each other, Diego and Abel develop a strong bond. But Diego is afraid to share the truth that he has been undocumented since arriving in the US at age 6. So now that he must go to Mexico for family reasons, he's worried he'll never be allowed to return. So Abel goes with him.

Throughout the film, the characters speak to each other about their personal feelings and experiences, sharing anecdotes that add emotional layers in understated ways. Most of this dialog centres on issues relating to parents and heritage, which of course ties in with the central immigration theme. Diego and his mother (Marquez) are proudly American, and teach Abel a thing or two about compassion and acceptance. So there's always a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and like Diego we can't predict Abel's reaction.

Saenz is superb as the nervous Diego, a likeable, opinionated guy who is awkward around other men and terrified about his precarious legal status. He has strong chemistry with Rodriguez, who plays Abel as a thoroughly decent man who is't worried about superficial things. The sexuality between them is carefully understated; this is a story about love, not lust, so the focus is on their emotional connection. Actors playing friends and family provide moments of laughter and edginess around the warm relationship between these two sympathetic young men.

Like Diego, writer-director Garcia clearly has little tolerance for gay subculture and its sex-obsessed queeniness, which he quietly equates with bigotry. Even the rainbow flag has been co-opted as a marketing tool. These kinds of observations add a gentle political ripple that gives weight to the romance, even if things get a bit melodramatic. This means that the intense second half of the story, which follows this couple to Mexico, is beautifully observed and powerfully moving.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality

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