Wow! Hats off to the programmers and filmmakers of Outfest LA 2021. As an alum who has had seven films screen at Outfest over the years, I’ve seen the festival truly grow and take the initiative to shine a spotlight on a larger and larger world of stories. It makes me proud as a filmmaker, a film critic, and just another excited audience member. It’s only my second day of watching films and I’m thrilled by what I’ve seen so far. Truth be told, when I sit down to watch movies, I want them to be masterpieces. Every single one of them. Like Tyra Banks famously said, “We were all rooting for you!” Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. One thing is for certain, Outfest this year has me sitting here with one of those sports foam fingers cheering on each film, almost wishing them into greatness. Come on filmmakers, we’re all rooting for you.
The Best Families ★★★★★
Full disclosure: I’ve known Javier Fuentes-León for many years. We have many friends in common and we used to write our scripts at the same coffeehouse, wondering if anyone was ever going to give us jobs. Javier took the bull by the horns and made his harrowing but wonderful first feature Undertow in 2009, the same year I made mine. He followed it with The Vanished Elephant, a very serious detective story. As much as I loved those films, I wondered where the funny, goofy side of Javier was hiding in his cinematic voice. As a friend, I was hesitant to review his latest film, The Best Families, concerned that if I hated it, I’d be in a very precarious position in which I would feel compelled to tell the truth. Happily, not only do I truly love the film, but it finally shows his expert chops with comedy, while never sublimating his passion for social constructs.
The story of two rich Peruvian families and their house staffs who live next door to each other and unite for one of the matriarchs’ birthdays, it has the DNA of your typical Upstairs, Downstairs comedy of manners. While true on the surface, with old rivalries, gay sons with very different approaches to their lives, and secrets on the verge of causing chaos, Fuentes-León approaches his material with clarity and precision. He occasionally uses split screen to introduce characters, injects social unrest as an ominous backdrop, and most successfully has several slow motion interludes to create visual poetry at just the right moments. Imagine if Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar, Stanley Kubrick, and Peter Greenaway had a four-gy, and then got on Grindr afterwards to invite Javier over because they needed fresh meat to liven up the joint. I also suspect juggling lessons took place, because Fuentes-León really knows how to navigate a story around a huge cast yet manages to make each character and storyline so distinct and easy to track. I especially loved Undertow star Tatiana Astengo as Luzmila, a housekeeper forced into an impossible situation.
With screwball comedy keeping the pace taut throughout, Fuentes-León still manages to successfully make a statement about class disparities and familial tensions. Bit by bit, we witness the lower class characters adding their opinions into the mix, unafraid to be themselves. We truly see in this film that every person has a voice and a story. A late scene, which ends with a gorgeous dolly shot of a family tableau made me cry, yet a minute later I laughed at the hilarious, well-earned final line. Fuentes-León is a world class filmmaker and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see this fantastic film.
Look for The Best Families in theaters in 2022. Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 15th-16th 2021.
Crystal Diaries ★★★
Black gay men are the focus of two complimentary documentaries surrounding the underlying truths about addiction and how it could lead to tragedy. Ed Buck, a prominent Democratic party fundraiser in West Hollywood who was recently convicted of murdering Gemmel Moore and Timothy Michael Dean would normally be the salacious center of a serial killer storyline. His victims, and the community in which he preyed upon, gets centerstage here, however, and rightfully so. Buck habitually lured men like Gemmel and Tim to his apartment where he paid them for sex and for injecting them with crystal meth. In Enyce Smith, Gina Lamb and Ryku Bellas’s Crystal Diaries, we hear from people who have lived with addictions, providing the context for how it affects Black queer lives, displaying their vulnerability and their susceptibility to serial murderers like Buck. It’s very straight-forward and does a good job in showing us the beautiful community building and appropriately raised voices in the wake of crimes treated with blatant racial bias. With police reports being ignored or dismissed, Buck no doubt took advantage of that in pursuit of his lethal fetishes. This has a cautionary tale/PSA vibe, but proves a vital introduction to the film that follows.
Gemmel & Tim ★★★★
Michiel Thomas’ Gemmel & Tim rigorously tells the story of Buck’s victims as told by their family and friends. By humanizing the names behind the headlines, you feel the tragedy that much more. Using animation and interviews as well as an intuitive, layered filmmaking style filled with well-photographed views of West Hollywood, we get a tremendous grasp of time and place. Gemmel and Tim were complicated men with loving friends who make us feel like we know these guys inside and out. It’s a sad story of one man taking advantage of them. Racial bias and victim blaming was everywhere, with some media outlets referring to the victims as a sex worker or a former gay porn star. The documentary contains several chilling moments in which the wagons figuratively circle around Ed Buck to protect him while blaming Gemmel and Tim. Ed Buck’s lawyer proves as much when he states, “This is not a situation where Mr. Buck has caused the death. This is a situation where Mr. Buck has had longtime friends who unfortunately do not handle their life well.” This artfully-made, well-rounded film tells a tragic story but leaves you with hope as it provides a space for Black voices to be heard, for justice to finally be served, and for some real change.
Crystal Diaries and Gemmel & Tim screen virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 16th-17th 2021.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic