the most original, vital queer movies of 2016

Six films that upended the cliche “coming out” narrative this year, featuring softball romance and a talking hamster.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
29 December 2016, 6:10pm

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In 2016, queer films became more mainstream than ever. See: Moonlight's blockbuster success and symphony of Oscar buzz (despite its small budget). The critical darling was not just the biggest LGBT film of the year, but one of the biggest films of the year, period. Other highly acclaimed releases came from French auteur André Téchiné with Being 17 and the indie Brazilian film Don't Call Me Son. This year, directors shifted away from the formulaic coming-out narrative (full of shame, hidden kisses, and religious guilt) and produced Gen Z tales centered on fluid sexualities, double minorities, and what happens after coming out. But there's still a dire need for all the identities making up the LGBT community to be equally represented. While more racially diverse than previous years, a lot of the films released in 2016 focused on the experiences of cis men, with a disproportionately lower number exploring queer female relationships and virtually none centered on the trans experience. So we still have a long way to go. But these powerful films are spirited steps in the right direction.

Don't Call Me Son
Pierre is a gender-fluid, queer teen — but, surprisingly, this is not the main concern of Don't Call Me Son. In fact, it becomes clear after seeing Pierre confidently sulk his way through a party and make out with a boy and then a girl that Pierre's queerness is, actually, of little concern to him or his friends. The real focus of the film is family. After a police-mandated DNA test, Pierre discovers his mother stole him from his biological parents. The woman who raised Pierre is arrested and Pierre is sent to live with his upper class, conservative biological family. Naturally, things are a little awkward. There's a tense moment when Pierre's biological mother prys about his blue nail polish, her voice reeking of judgement. Pierre is either too oblivious or too apathetic to pay the question any serious attention. This LGBT film stands out from the crowd by presenting us with a character who has, remarkably, already figured himself out, only to have a DNA test pull the rug out from under him.

Being 17
Budding romance is the focus of this sweet film from celebrated director André Téchiné. Set in a French mountain village, Thomas and Damien's tender firsts are just as imposing and lush as their snowy locale. The boys start out as high school foes, expelling their confused feelings through punches and insults. But over time, those punches turn into quick, stolen kisses. There's a remarkable moment when Damien interrogates Thomas about his confusing hot-and-cold approach, asking if it's because he feels embarrassed about liking a boy. Thomas responds by passionately kissing Damien, gifting a swift "no." Being 17 eschews the conventions of queer coming-of-age films by presenting us with characters who spend a lot of time toeing the line, but feel no shame or personal turmoil once they cross it.

Critically-acclaimed hit Moonlight explores the nuances of Black queerness. Centered on soft spoken Chiron as he grows up in a predominantly Black Miami neighborhood, the film poignantly illustrates that race and class are some of the biggest shapers in the queer experience. Unlike the other protagonists on this list, Chiron never consciously or deliberately explores his sexuality. With a mother battling drug addiction and a gang of vicious bullies, he's got too much to deal with. There's a lot of talk about "down low" men in the Black community — men who act out heterosexual lives but secretly engage in homosexual acts. Moonlight serves as a drawn-out explanation of how Black men reach this stifling repression. Because when we see Chiron become a hardened, muscled drug dealer, his queerness and softness abandoned after one brief encounter as a teen, it's hard to blame or judge him. Fighting was simply too exhausting.

Closet Monster
Directed by Canadian newcomer Stephen Dunn, Closet Monster is a psycho-thriller meets coming-of-age drama. The best way to explain this genre-crossing surrealist film is as a teenage fever dream. Oscar Madly is discovering his attraction to boys and receiving advice on the coming-out process from his talking hamster "Buffy." As Oscar falls for his curly-haired, "bad boy" coworker at a hardware store, he battles against an emotionally abusive, homophobic father. Add to that recurring flashbacks of the murder of a gay man he witnessed as a child, and this coming-of-age plot quickly turns gory. This is Dunn's first film, and his highly stylized work is reminiscent of the ornate visuals and soft-hued characters of fellow Canadian director Xavier Dolan.

First Girl I Loved
This Sundance drama is the adolescent cousin of Blue Is the Warmest Color. Nerdy and quiet Anna falls in love with Sasha, who is practically magnetic, after watching her play in a softball game. From that moment on Anna is headstrong about her feelings for Sasha, chasing after her with little shame or self-consciousness. But Sasha is more unsure about who she is or what she likes. This difference leads to so much conflict and confusion between the two girls that Sasha ends up reporting Anna to the school's administration. First Girl I Loved breaks the mold by presenting a love interest who is willing to explore her sexuality, and by showing the painful blow that follows for Anna when Sasha is finished with her experimentation.

Mapplethorpe: Look At the Pictures
This HBO documentary examines the life and legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe, arguably one of the most influential queer photographers ever. Interviewing those closest to him, the doc tracks Mapplethorpe's transformation from casually shooting polaroids of a young Patti Smith (his longtime girlfriend) to producing fine-art photos of the male form. The photographer's romantic take on masculinity has been so enduring that Raf Simons screen-printed Mapplethorpe's gorgeous 35mm photos onto oversized shirts and sweaters for his spring/summer 17 collection. Mapplethorpe's problematic sides are discussed too, namely his fetishization of Black males during his later years. What emerges from it all is a touching portrait of a man who strived to turn his personal obsessions into immaculate art.


Text André-Naquian Wheeler

Best of 2016
queer film
Closet Monster
being 17
don’t call me son
first girl i loved
mapplethorpe: look at the pictures