This year’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival came to a close tonight with the world premiere of writer-director Travis Fine’s exceptional Two Eyes. Fine, who also serves as editor, effortlessly weaves an ambitious, rich cinematic tapestry with a triptych of narratives that explore and celebrate the spectrum of queerness and gender identity over more than a century.
The film opens in present day Wyoming where we meet a gifted teenage musician, Jalin (Ryan Cassata). Struggling to come to terms with the sudden end of a relationship and believing that he’s been rejected for being trans, Jalin attempts suicide. Estranged from his family, when released from hospital he’s introduced to a compassionate trans non-binary counsellor, Andrea (Kate Bornstein) who runs a centre for LGBTQ+ youth in Laramie (the city where Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998).
In 1868 Montana, a British lawyer turned painter, Dihlon (Benjamin Rigby), has recently moved his wife and children across the Atlantic in the hope of discovering his muse. Travelling alone to paint, he employs a Native American guide, Jacy (Kiowa Gordon), and there’s an immediate, palpable attraction between the two men. As Jacy shows the artist the natural beauty of the land, he introduces him to indigenous people including the two-spirit Poopahte (Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter).
In Barstow, California in 1979 an aspiring photographer, Gabryal (Uly Schlesinger), is befriended by the far more confident and wise beyond her years Alasen (Jessica Allain), a newly arrived foreign exchange student at their high school. Stifled by their small-town lives, the pair steals away to Hollywood to meet up with Alasen’s free-spirited queer friend Thandi (Nakhane) who is performing Jackie Shane covers at a bar, and living openly with his boyfriend.
With characters in each narrative strand who are questioning or discovering themselves, and others who are full of acceptance, who embrace and guide them, clear echoes and parallels begin to emerge, but never feel forced or laboured. Instead these ripples of experiences and ideas build an empowering feeling that we, as LGBTQ+ humans, have always been here. One potential drawback of a screenplay that offers three distinct narratives is that one might prove more engaging than the others to the extent that there’s a lull as we’re moved from story to story, but that’s never the case here. Told with an economy that credits the audience with intelligence, Two Eyes has a symphonic quality that carries us through time and space. Music is one of the elements that helps connect the narratives emotionally, with a soul stirring score by Joey Newman and four of Nakhane’s heartbreaking, achingly beautiful songs, playing across scenes from the nineteenth century, the 1970s and 2020.
The impressive ensemble cast delivers strong performances throughout. From her first scene, Kate Bornstein brings humanity, warmth and a lifetime of experience to Andrea as she attempts to make Jalin to feel more at ease with himself. While Ryan Cassata brings a poignant depth to Jalin’s despair that draws us in, with subtle, nuanced work. Nakhane, in his first film following their acclaimed acting debut in The Wound, lights up the screen as the charismatic deeply empathetic Thandi, radiating an infectious joy at being alive. There’s a compelling delicacy to Uly Schlesinger’s soulful performance as Gabryal as he begins to open up to Alasen, portrayed with appealing verve by Jessica Allain. In the 1860s, the moments of deep connection between Dihlon and Jacy are often wordless, sensitively and captivatingly conveyed by Benjamin Rigby and Kiowa Gordon as the two lovers.
Particular praise should be reserved for the stunning work of Emmy-winning director of photography Avery Holliday who gives each time period a distinctive colour palette and look that’s never jarring as we move from one to the other. The mountains and wide open vistas of Montana are beautifully captured, bringing a breathtakingly epic quality to the film, and the sun-dappled romance between Jacy and Dihlon made me yearn to see the film on the big screen.
As thrilling as it is to see so much of our diverse LGBTQ+ family represented through these characters, ultimately Two Eyes is not so much about how we identify, but more about human connection. Those intimate moments of tenderness, those pivotal, formative relationships in our lives, however brief, that teach us the kind of people we want to be and how to live our truths. Those connections that help us come to terms with how the world sees us, how we see ourselves, and how we look at the world. Profoundly moving, at a time when we can’t hug one other Two Eyes feels likes a much-needed warm, uplifting, hopeful embrace.
By James Kleinmann
Travis Fine’s Two Eyes world premiered tonight at the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival and is currently available to stream at OutfestLA2020.com until Tuesday, or until the viewership limit reached.