Continuing to play virtually, the Spectrum Festival on May 1 to 3 includes the Peruvian film, “Retablo,” a fictional story about a teenaged boy who discovers upsetting news about his father’s sexual orientation. “To the Stars,” a teenager explores her lesbian orientation, and “Straight Up” tells the story of a 28-year-old trying to decide if he’s really gay.
“Retablo” is set in a remote Peruvian village. Fourteen-year-old Segundo (Junior Bejar) works with his father, Noé (Amiel Cayo), to make painted shadow boxes containing figurines of potato dough. Called retablos, they contain religious images or folk-art featuring families and community scenes. Because of his skill, Noé is called “maestro,” and as his wife Anatolia (Magali Solier) proudly says he is an artisan rather than a peasant.
Traveling in a truck to deliver a large retablo, Segundo is stunned to catch sight of his father sexually pleasuring the driver. Devoted to his father, Segundo feels betrayed and frightened in what is a severely homophobic society. Although he has heard his parents making love at night, it is his father who gives him his first introduction to sexuality.
Segundo’s friend Mardonio (Mauro Chuchon) brags to him about his prowess with women, but Segundo is struggling with his father’s sexual orientation. He fights with his friends, and Noé is beaten up by the village men when they find out he’s gay.
Once Anatolia learns that her husband is gay, she calls him a filthy animal and leaves him. Still devoted to his father, Segundo stays and cares for him, until the heartbreaking end of the film. In part what also makes the film powerful, is the way director Alvaro Delgado Aparicio depicts the beauty of the landscape and the stone houses of the Quechua village.
“To the Stars”
Wakita, the setting for “To the Stars,” is a small rural town in Oklahoma, where two teenagers live. Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is an awkward outsider with oversized glasses who is taunted by her classmates and called stinky drawers because of her urge incontinence. When Maggie arrives in town, she befriends Iris and helps her overcome her shyness and bladder problem.
Director Martha Stephens captures in black and white the wide-open spaces of this oppressively conservative farming community. The story takes place in 1960, when homosexuality is still utterly taboo. In keeping with the times, Maggie’s lesbian orientation remains hidden for much of the film.
She has a habit of lying to the high school’s other catty girls, for instance bragging to them that her father is a photographer for Life magazine. The two friends are opposite in temperament, with Maggie’s boldness counterbalancing Iris’s lack of confidence. As the two girls become close, swimming together under the stars in a nearby pond, Iris gains self-assuredness and calls out Maggie for her lies.
“To the Stars” builds its effects subtly, sometimes incorporating surprising details. Iris hates the frilly prom gown her mother Francie (Jordana Spiro) has made for her as a “boy catcher,” and the dress ends up in an unexpected place.
The film develops the roles of the other characters, including both girls’ parents and Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens), the hairdresser who turns out to play an important role in Maggie’s life. Jeff Owings (Lucas Jade Zumann) who works at the Deerborne barn and is attracted to Iris, finds himself pursued by her mother. Some of “To the Stars” tends to be melodramatic and overdrawn, but its message is appropriate for the times and tells its story with an understated loveliness.
As “Straight Up” proposes, some gay men aren’t sure if they’re really gay. It’s a little like self-directed deprogramming therapy. In screwball comic style, Todd, played by writer/director James Sweeney, is fast with the quip and comeback. He agonizes with his therapist (Tracie Thoms) over the fact that despite being accused of being gay since childhood, he doesn’t want to have sex with men. He’s an obsessive-compulsive and repulsed by bodily fluids. He doesn’t have a home — he house-sits in Los Angeles — and he’s lonely.
Todd’s friends, Meg (Dana Drori) and Ryder (James Scully), who’s gay, argue with him that just because he’s lonely doesn’t mean he’s actually heterosexual, maybe just homophobic. When he goes to the library and starts arranging the self-help section, he meets Rory, a would-be actress, and their connection is instant. They both talk as fast as Cary Grant and Roslyn Russell in “His Girl Friday” (1940). They both love “The Gilmore Girls” and have collected all seven seasons.
It doesn’t take too long before they move in together, but their romance doesn’t include sex. When they go to a costume party as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), it doesn’t occur to them that Newman’s character is a repressed homosexual. A dinner party with Todd’s parents (Randall Park and Betsey Brandt) takes an unexpectedly funny turn. Whether these two will end up together or not is the question “Straight Up” asks.
Information and internet charges for the SPECTRUM festival are available at mvfilmsociety.com.