Movies With Young LGBT Characters You Need To Queue Up Immediately
This year on the festival circuit, many queer films are probing the experiences of young people, with storylines that include transitioning, falling in love, and just plain growing up. Here are three of the best.
1. Girls Lost
Based on the acclaimed Swedish young adult novel by Jessica Schiefauer, Girls Lost is a story of gender navigation and sexual awakening, infused with a healthy dose of supernatural strangeness. Three teenagers who are viciously bullied in school — Momo (Louise Nyvall), Bella (Wilma Holmen), and Kim (Tuva Jagell) — take refuge from their cruel classmates in Bella’s greenhouse, which belonged to her late mother. When Bella is sent a mysterious seed by mistake, she plants it; the next morning, she’s surprised to discover that it has bloomed into a large black flower overnight. Later, after a particularly rough day at school, the group of best friends decide to drink the flower’s juice, hoping it will give them powers to ward off their persecutors. They fall asleep – and when they wake, they find that their bodies have been transformed into those of boys.
The film is beautifully shot, warmed by rich, deep colors, with the fluid movements of a waking dream. Giddy moments immediately following the played-for-laughs body swap scene are among the prettiest: Momo, Bella, and Kim — now played by Alexander Gustavsson, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, and Emrik Öhlander, respectively; all uncanny casting choices for the girls’ male counterparts — rush outside and take to their bikes, urged to put their new limbs to use. The teenagers are delighted to find they’ve been newly endowed with penises, muscles, and the male privilege that allows them to float through other boys’ spaces without being called sluts and whores. They speed joyfully through the Swedish night, momentarily freed from the social and physical oppressions of girlhood. But, in an appropriately werewolfian twist, the spell only lasts 'til morning.
For Momo and Bella, their flirtation with magic is a lark, a romp — they go to school the next day, back in girls’ bodies, though with leftover bravado from their few hours of boyishness. But for Kim the transformation offers something entirely different. Already tomboyish in his female-assigned body, he experiences his new boy’s body as an extension of his deepest, truest self. But it took the physical metamorphosis for him to realize this truth in full.
By night, the teenagers continue to drink the flower’s magic serum, though as Kim’s enthusiasm waxes, Momo and Bella’s inevitably wanes. In boy bodies, they start hanging out with a petty thief who goes to their school, Tony (Mandus Berg), and his ragtag crew; Kim becomes enamored with him and his rough, boozy lifestyle, which Momo and Bella view as a betrayal of their core friendship.
The tender push and pull of teenage affections, articulated by across-the-board powerful performances, is one of the film’s greatest strengths — especially where those affections are complicated, as they always are in real life (albeit less magically so), by sexuality and gender. As Kim tumbles after Tony, participating blindly in his thieving escapades, it’s clear that Kim is trying to parse whether his attraction to Tony is aspirational (Tony is the boy Kim wants to be) or romantic (Tony is the boy Kim wants to kiss), or a breathless mix of the two. Meanwhile, Momo is wrestling with her attraction to Kim, though she can’t quite tell whether she should love him in his boy version or girl version, nor what form she herself should take so that he might love her back.
The film’s plotting starts to unravel toward the end, in a third act which feels indulgently long and a bit too concerned with trans male aggression. The flower Kim’s using for his nightly transformations withers more and more each time it’s tapped for juice; as his need to live in boy form grows more acute, the flower grows ever closer to death. The final scenes reveal an uncomfortable collision between the film’s magical realism and the real-world implications of Kim’s tragic inability to sustain the flower’s power forever, as much as he fights to save it. In the slippery space created between the the fantastical elements of body-swapping and the film’s grounding in the physical immediacy of sex, drugs, and teenage cruelty, Girls Lost makes no room for Kim to consider the life-saving possibilities of hormones and gender affirmation surgery someday — and so, when magic abandons him, he has nowhere to turn.
A disconcertingly ambiguous ending aside, Girls Lost is a wholly original take on trans teenagedom, resplendently packaged and populated with characters worth fighting for.
Where you can see it: Girls Lost will be streamed in the U.S. and Canada through Wolfe Releasing later this year.
2. Barash (Blush)
When Michal Vinik set out to make her debut feature, the casting took her months. For her film about queer teenage girls, Barash, she was seeking non-actor, real-life lesbians. (She ended up finding one of them, Jade Sakori — who plays party-girl love interest Hershko — on the street, walking arm in arm with her girlfriend.)
“I was seeking a certain truth I didn’t see other places,” Vinik said at a Q&A after Barash’s screening at BFI Flare in March. “I love Cate Blanchett kissing anybody, that’s OK with me,” she joked, referencing last year’s much-beloved Carol, which starred Blanchett and Rooney Mara, two straight actors. “But I was looking for something different.”
Barash’s 17-year-old titular character, Naama Barash (Sivan Noam Shimon), tries to escape being embroiled in her family’s drama by tossing herself more aggressively into the Tel Aviv nightlife. She and her friends loiter outside of cars in parking lots, waiting for boys to offer them drugs and alcohol. It’s only when the new girl in school — the pretty, bottle-blonde Hershko, whose drawn-on left eyebrow is always a different bright color — starts accompanying Naama and her friends on exploits that their partying options vibrantly expand before them.
In many ways, Barash follows the well-worn path of a lesbian coming-of-age drama: a moody, almost-not-quite-rebellious teen girl is searching for something different; then a new, edgy, experienced queer girl comes to town and starts seriously messing with her heart. But Barash manages to set itself apart from the pack, in part because it has sociopolitical conflict as its backdrop. While Naama is slipping out of class to party, there’s a worry lodged at the back of her mind: Her older sister, Liora (Bar Ben Vakil), has gone missing, seemingly having abandoned her post with the Israeli army. Their father, Gidon (Dvir Benedek), drags Naama along on searches. Soon, the family learns that Liora might have run off with a Palestinian boy. As Naama navigates her budding queerness, her presumed sexual deviance parallels that of her missing sister, whose absence hangs over every sad family barbecue, every pulsating, breathless club scene.
At the BFI Flare Q&A, director and writer Vinik said that she wasn’t an out lesbian teenager — so the film, for her, was a chance to “rewrite my own history.” Nowhere in the film is that revision more apparent than in a fabulous sequence where Naama and Liora are lounging outside school, casually discussing which girls they’d like to sleep with. Hot girls, it seems, are everywhere: hugging their friends, smoking cigarettes, drifting down stairwells, all in languid, sexy slow-mo from Naama and Liora’s perspective. “So many girls here need us to show them the light,” says Liora. For everyone who didn’t come out until college or beyond, it’s a reimagining of what high school might have been like as a playground of queer possibility.
And there’s a remarkably well-done sex scene, too, long and slow, sun-drenched and buzzing with excited tension. Naama’s gobsmacked face when walking home from her first lesbian sexual encounter drew laughs from an audience familiar with exactly that experience: the thrill, the wonder, the knowledge that your life has been forever changed. Though the plot fizzles a little by the end, Barash feels exactly like a movie made by and with lesbians in the best way — authentic, queer, feminine, exuberant.
Where you can see it: Barash is being distributed as Blush in the U.S. by Film Movement. It will screen at Outfest in Los Angeles in July 2016. Keep up with additional showtimes and festival releases here.
3. Sworn Virgin
To escape a life of female subservience in the remote mountain villages of northern Albania, some women and girls make a choice: to swear eternal celibacy, in exchange for the right to dress and live as men. For her debut feature, director Laura Bispuri teamed up with co-writer Francesca Manieri to adapt a novel by Elvira Dones in order to probe this phenomenon, bringing the story to life with Hana (whose adult self is deftly and remarkably performed by Alba Rohrwacher).
As a child, Hana is plucked from the ravages of a winter storm responsible for killing her parents and delivered to safety by Gjergj (Bruno Shllaku), who then raises her as his own. Gjergj has a daughter, Lila (Flonja Kodheli), with whom Hana navigates preteen life in their tiny, tradition-steeped village. Gorgeous tracking shots show the girls — now sisters — running through the frozen white and gray swirl of Albania in bright knitted sweaters, their long hair streaming behind them. In one harrowing scene, Hana and Lila are carrying laundry home with their mother when they pass a group of men leading a woman on horseback; the woman is covered head to toe in a white veil. The girls learn that she’s a bride being delivered to her groom — her face is covered so that she can’t see how to escape and return home.
The bride is a ghostly physical manifestation of life for women here: As Hana and Lila get older, they grow ever closer to being sent away and forced into early arranged marriages, after which they’ll be expected to perform strictly servile roles. The girls, now teenagers, choose two different paths to evade their fate: Lila runs off to Italy to marry for love instead of duty, while Hana — who has been learning how to shoot rifles under Gjergj’s gruff instruction — stays behind. “I’m nothing outside of these mountains,” she tells Lila, declining her sister’s plea to come with her. In order to retain the masculine-coded freedoms she’d been attempting to earn, Hana takes the vow of burrnesha, becoming a sworn virgin.
The film progresses along two linear storylines, their past intercut with scenes of their present. Now grown adults, Lila has settled in Milan, while Hana is living as a man named Mark in Albania. But for Mark, even the masculine pleasures of independent living, alcohol consumption, and rifle wielding aren’t enough to justify the progression of life in his remote village. Gjergj, the father figure to whom he owes his rewritten life, died long ago. He’s lonely. Over a decade after seeing Lila for the last time, he sets out for Milan — taking a barge across an icy blue lake which reflects the looming Albanian mountains above, in a head-spinningly beautiful long take — to find her.
Sworn Virgin is about being caught in between: Hana/Mark exists in flux, floating between genders and countries. The film eschews any sort of easy trans narrative: Mark, while having grown into his manhood in many ways, is also ever more drawn to certain aspects of the femininity — and sexuality — he’d long ago forsworn. Lila, after at first being rattled by his sudden reappearance in her life, takes him into her home and begins helping him navigate a path toward an improvised new womanhood. Late at night, when neither are able to sleep, they camp out in the kitchen and whisper about sex — which Mark is still a stranger to — finding the secretive intimacy of sisters anew.
Some of the film’s loveliest moments occur between Mark and Lila’s teenage daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), a surly synchronized swimmer who resents Mark for suddenly crashing into her world; she knows and cares little about the Albania her mother left behind. Mark, against Jonida’s protestations, begins picking her up from her swim lessons, at a bustling pool set in dreamy, blue-washed tableaus. Lithe teenage bodies in colorful bathing suits and heavily shellacked makeup twirl around Mark while he watches them practice, every girl a physical representation of the kind of girlhood neither Lila nor Hana had been afforded.
Jonida can understand Albanian but refuses to speak it, instead drowning Mark in ceaseless Italian he can barely parse, leaving them to communicate mostly in gesture. Mark carries Jonida’s backpack for her. Jonida holds a new bra up to Mark’s chest once she’s begun warming to him, suggesting he could really pull it off. Jonida’s brash, mouthy girlishness sweeps up against Mark’s hesitant masculine stoicism, and he begins to find his way back to Hana.
At once a story of the way girls can be twisted into terribly limiting roles and a story of how different kinds of girls can cope, and flourish, in full spite of those limits, Sworn Virgin is as visually captivating as it is warm, precise, and intimate.
Where you can see it: Sworn Virgin is currently open in limited release.
It's also worth checking out these other films featuring young LGBT characters currently floating around the festival circuit, all of which screened at BFI Flare: Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, about a Christian teenager discovering his sexuality amidst a bustling celebration of his 17th birthday; Naz & Maalik, about two closeted Muslim teens in Brooklyn being watched by the FBI; and Closet Monster, a coming-of-age-tale featuring a talking hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini. (Though this is by no means an exhaustive list.)