The San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival opens Thursday in rambunctious style with the first three episodes of Metrosexuality and, in movie-star mode, with Susan Seidelman's tedious farce, Gaudi Afternoon. Now in its 25th year, the festival reflects a certain ambivalence among gays and lesbians. On the one hand, the community continues to demand more representation of gay characters in mainstream media -- get over it, America. Meanwhile, GLBT filmmakers push forward with their own depictions of people whose lives would otherwise never light up a screen. (Unfortunately, a ton of those movies are of the find-a-lover variety, which should start to disappear now that we have an uninhibited gay TV soap opera, Queer as Folk, to play out all the permutations.) The upshot is that the SFILGFF plays glossy date movies alongside confrontational documentaries, and, as in every film festival, representation occasionally takes precedence over quality. There's plenty of pride this year, but a little more joy would be nice.
While Metrosexuality gets points for combining entertainment and social commentary, the marvelous French road movie Adventures of Felix matter-of-factly situates its gay lead as a member of everyday society. Journeying from the north of France to Marseilles to look up the father he never knew, Felix encounters a variety of interesting strangers. These vignettes don't serve to transform our already self-confident hero so much as illuminate the ease with which ordinary people can connect. Felix may play like a fantasy to some Americans, but this second feature from the talented duo of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) raises the reassuring possibility that homophobia, like racism, is declining.
Noam Gonick's Winnipeg feature, Hey, Happy!, generally and genially ignores the straight world, serving up an off-kilter universe that's a heartfelt tribute to alienated outsiders everywhere. A plot summary would make it sound willfully weird, but it's got a sweet emotional power (abetted by a fine electronica soundtrack). Quentin Lee's debut feature of a few years ago, Shopping for Fangs, boasted a similar Day-Glo production design, off-the-wall characters, and fresh voice, but Drift, his autobiographical DV follow-up, is remarkable only for its relentless banality. Pushed in part by the attentions of a college student, Ryan breaks up with Joel out of boredom as their three-year anniversary tolls. Ryan goes back and forth in the least exciting triangle in the history of movies; this is one of those interminable indie flicks that's nothing but scenes of two people talking about "the relationship." You've done that in real life? It's even worse on-screen.
But if paddling around in stale angst and sour self-pity is your thing, the festival offers lots of opportunities. Lost and Delirious, Canadian filmmaker Lea Pool's adaptation of novelist Susan Swan's The Wives of Bath, explores a doomed boarding school romance between Piper Perabo and Jessica Pare. The leads are exceptionally attractive (you think that's only important in a Hollywood movie?), and Pool (Set Me Free) knows well the shaky footing of adolescence, but after an intriguing beginning she allows the tale to narrow and crumble into hysteria and ridiculous metaphor. Alas, the ineptly plotted Australian mystery/love story The Monkey's Mask doesn't even have a good setup. Incompetent private eye Jill Fitzgerald (Susie Porter) is hired to find a missing teenage poet, but her investigation goes awry once she falls for the poetry teacher (Kelly McGillis). Director Samantha Lang was clearly aiming for something more resonant than the standard girl-meets-girl, girl-loses-girl story, but what we get is the insight (yawn) that complacency is the enemy of relationships (see Drift, above).
Speaking of girl-loses-girl flicks, Kali's Vibe subverts its numerous clichés (the tarot-card-reading scene, the running-into-ex-lover-in-a-restaurant scene) through the fresh perspective of an African-American heroine. After Kali (Lizzy Davis) and Crystal (Phalana Tiller) break up, Kali finds herself attracted to -- say it ain't so! -- a straight dude named Ezra (Charles Malik Whitfield). Brimming with wit and New York élan, Kali's Vibe contains some of the most appealing performers in the entire festival. Demonstrating equally remarkable screen charisma, Silas Howard and Harriet "Harry" Dodge, the co-writers and co-directors of the bittersweet local feature By Hook or By Crook, appear as the butch outcasts Shy and Valentine. Each is scarred by the absence of a parent, but fortunately psychology and plot don't drive this evocatively shot film. It's a droll portrait of desperation and the outlaw freedom of having nothing to live up to and no rules to follow.
Its merits notwithstanding, By Hook or By Crook is likely to connect most powerfully with butch lesbian festgoers hungry for screen images of themselves. Maria Breaux's no-budget debut feature, I'd Rather Be ... Gone, will likewise benefit from screening in the context of a lesbian and gay film festival. Shot primarily in the Mission District, the movie has the immediacy of real-life experience, even if its three female characters seem uniquely out of touch with everyday life. What they lack most acutely is the ability to laugh at themselves, which the "Fun in Girls' Shorts" program has in spades. Local filmmaker Barry Gilbert's hilarious Her Urge makes wicked sport of single-minded quests to corral one's crush, while the Canadian Interviews With My Next Girlfriend juicily demolishes lesbian dating stereotypes.
There's much more in the festival, of course, from the stylishly meandering ambiguity of the Argentine period drama Plata Quemada (Burnt Money) to the cute, likable local boys riffing on sex in the talking-heads documentary Out in the Open to All Over the Guy, the breezy romantic comedy that brings down the curtain. It may be possible to imagine a world where a lesbian and gay film festival is no longer necessary, but for now the London of Metrosexuality is as close as it gets.
Metrosexuality: Thursday, June 14, 8:30 p.m., CFA
Gaudi Afternoon: Thursday, June 14, 7:30 p.m., Castro
Adventures of Felix: Tuesday, June 19, 9:30 p.m., Castro
Hey, Happy!: Friday, June 15, 11 p.m., Castro
Drift: Saturday, June 16, 8:15 p.m., Victoria; Monday, June 18, 1:30 p.m., Castro
Lost and Delirious: Thursday, June 21, 6:15 p.m., Castro
The Monkey's Mask: Saturday, June 16, 10:30 p.m., Castro
Kali's Vibe: Tuesday, June 19, 6 p.m., Victoria; Thursday, June 21, 1:30 p.m., Castro
By Hook or By Crook: Sunday, June 17, 6:30 p.m., Castro
I'd Rather Be ... Gone: Friday, June 22, 8:30 p.m., Victoria
"Fun in Girls' Shorts": Saturday, June 16, 11 a.m., Castro; Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m., Castro
Plata Quemada (Burnt Money): Saturday, June 16, 7 p.m., Castro
Out in the Open: Saturday, June 16, 9 p.m., CFA; Monday, June 18, 4 p.m., Castro
All Over the Guy: Sunday, June 24, 7 p.m., Castro