NewFest 2022 Opening Night Film Review: Mama’s Boy ★★★1/2

NewFest’s 34th annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival opened tonight with the world premiere of director Laurent Bouzereau’s deeply moving and unexpectedly urgent adaptation of Oscar-winning writer and filmmaker Dustin Lance Black’s 2019 best-selling memoir, Mama’s Boy, which debuts on HBO and HBO Max on Tuesday, October 18th 2022. “Very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours”, we see an emotional and passionate Black tell an enthusiastic (yes, Kate Winslet we’re looking at you) star-filled Kodak Theatre as Mama’s Boy opens with footage of his Oscar acceptance speech for Milk in February 2009. This was only three months after Prop 8—intended to ban equal marriage—had passed in California. Black’s mother, Rosanne “Anne” Bische, who attended the ceremony with her son, wearing a white ribbon in support of marriage equality, pointed out to him the following day both the enormity of the promise that he’d made on that stage and his duty to follow through on it. The journey to her acceptance of her son’s sexuality and support of his fight for equal rights wasn’t a straightforward one, and Mama’s Boy immerses us in Black’s compelling story of his family life, with his mother at its centre, and the values that she instilled in him by example.

Dustin Lance Black on Oscar night in 2009. Photo credit: Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images. Courtesy of HBO.

Anne grew up in poverty in Louisiana, spending years in various hospitals after being struck with polio. Told by doctors that she’d never walk again, and would need to live supported by the state, without getting married or having children, she showed fierce courage and single-mindedness and walked with her legs in braces using crutches for the rest of her life. There’s a wealth of photographs showing a young Anne smiling, despite her circumstances, including in the dress that she’d made to take herself to prom, without a date. Later, she gave up her medical degree, with an academic scholarship, to marry a Mormon man with whom she went on to have three sons, including Black.

Dustin Lance Black’s mother Rosanne “Anne” Bisch as a child with her mother Cokie Whitehead. Courtesy of HBO.

As Black’s vividly told stories about Anne unfold, clear parallels emerge between his mother’s defiant and determined spirit and how her son has lived his life so far. Black traces their relationship from their closeness in Black’s childhood, when his mother was his “best and only friend”, and his “lifeline”, to his early adulthood when she inadvertently rejected him before he’d come out to her. When talking to him about what she saw as the shamefulness of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell coming into effect in 1994—which allowed gay people to serve in the US armed forces that she herself worked in for nearly three decades—Anne referred to LGBTQ people in the terms that her faith had taught her, as “deviants, perverts, and sinners”, which brought her son to tears that immediately gave him away.

Dustin Lance Black’s mother Rosanne “Anne” Bisch. Courtesy of HBO.

Rich with evocative detail, Black’s to-camera interviews are commanding, and sometimes intense, while also being heartfelt and intimate. There’s a vulnerability there too, such as when he opens up about his queer awakening at the age of six when the butterflies he felt in his stomach at being drawn to another boy quickly turned to terror at the realization that he was going to hell, as Mormonism preached. Black recalls listening intently to the words of Spencer W. Kimball—the twelfth president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—whom he greatly admired as a child, being beamed into his local church, saying: “Like all the diseased doctrines of the devil—whether it is an increase in homosexuality, corruption, drugs, or abortion—misery achieves a ghastly monument.” Living in Texas at that time, being openly gay meant that you were a “criminal, mentally ill pariah”, as Black puts it. Subjected to listening to sermons that compared “the sin of being gay” with murder, Black knew that he had to keep his sexuality as a secret.

Mama’s Boy. Dustin Lance Black’s mother Rosanne “Anne” Bische, his brother Marcus Black, and stepfather Raul GarrisonCourtesy of HBO.

Black also details how the Mormon church aided his mother financially when she was abandoned by her first husband, before setting her up with an abusive second husband (the stepfather Lance took his surname from), with the church doing nothing to help stop his physical violence against Anne and her sons, but rather placing the responsibility for his actions on her. All of which makes Black’s later reaching out to the leaders of the Mormon church—who had been major financial supporters of the opposition to equal marriage, leading to the passing of Prop 8—all the more remarkable.

Dustin Lance Black. Photo credit: Travers Jacobs. Courtesy of HBO.

There are some fascinating and revealing moments of self-reflection, such as him recalling pushing his best friend and roommate Ryan to come out to him, only to tell him that him being gay might mean the end of their friendship. “I was treating people really poorly”, says Black, adding, “The recipe for treating people like shit; hate yourself. You turn into a monster.” There are also some particularly touching scenes of Black revisiting significant places from his childhood, such as the stream where he had played with his younger brother Todd, as he tried to keep them out of their home and away from their abusive first stepdad.

Sean Penn in Milk written by Dustin Lance Black. Photo credit: Phil Bray/Focus Features.

Although this isn’t a Dustin Lance Black biography, but more squarely about Anne, his relationship with her and his family and how that influenced him, there are some insights into Black’s early interest in film. As Anne met her third husband and the family made the move to California, she made turn a wrong turn and drove into LA, which she called “the land of sinners” and wanted to leave as soon as possible, but Black says he immediately “felt the call” of this city where movies were made. We learn that watching François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), the young Black was both impressed by the filmmaking and identified with the young protagonist’s troubled life. While his application to UCLA’s prestigious film program saw him channel his mother’s grit, going after what he wanted even though it appeared to be out of reach. Mama’s Boy also touches upon Black’s acclaimed films about LGBTQ+ trailblazers Pedro Zamora and Harvey Milk, as well as his own place in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. The film also briefly deals with Black meeting his husband, British Olympic diver Tom Daley, and them starting a family, with Daley appearing towards the end, both in home video footage of Black’s family Christmas, and in interviews about first falling in love with the filmmaker.

Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black with heir child. Courtesy of HBO.

Black is a captivating storyteller; articulate, fiercely intelligent, and passionate. Wisely, Bouzereau keeps things elegantly simple both narratively and visually, placing Black’s stories and those of his friends, peers, and family members at the heart of the film, bolstered by some beautiful photographs, home video and archive news footage. Ultimately, Black believes that if his conservative Mormon military mom could be open enough to come to his doorstep in California, and meet with his queer friends, and to love, accept and support her gay son, then there’s potential for change in anyone, and we could all benefit from her approach to life. He sees hope too, in the forming of the Mama Dragons, a group of mothers of LGBTQ+ kids in the Mormon church, who we see march in Salt Lake City Pride.

“We live in at least two Americas”, Black says at one point, but we shouldn’t let the rhetoric of divisiveness lead us to shutting ourselves off from those who think and vote differently from us. Instead, we should keep listening to those, perhaps within our own families, whom we feel irrevocably different from, and continue to tell them our own stories. Mama’s Boy is a hymn to the power of storytelling and a poignant portrait of Black’s late mother, that honours what she stood for, how she lived her life, and how that shaped her son.

By James Kleinmann

Mama’s Boy received its world premiere at NewFest’s 34th New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival and debuts on HBO on Tuesday, October 18th at 9pm ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

The 34th New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival takes place throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn and virtually across the US until October 25th 2022.

Mama’s Boy | Official Trailer | HBO
Mama’s Boy | Official Poster | HBO
Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black & director Laurent Bouzereau on their HBO documentary Mama’s Boy

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