Another Toronto International Film Festival is in the books. The first fully in-person edition of the fest since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic wrapped up this weekend, with Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical homage to moviemaking, The Fabelmans, taking the top People’s Choice Award on Sunday.
But you’re not here to hear about Spielberg and prestige Oscars predictions: no, you’re here for the gay stuff, and on that side of things, I am happy to deliver.
This was my very first time attending TIFF in person, and as such, I tried to pack in as much queer and trans content as I could into the full 11-day festival. This included everything from big-budget blockbuster premieres (Bros) to small Canadian indies (ROSIE) to a once-in-a-lifetime theatregoing experience that may never happen again (yes, I was at the only public screening of The People’s Joker). We’ve already run several reviews from myself and Xtra’s roster of freelancers, and expect many more in the coming weeks.
While I’ve managed to escape Toronto COVID-19-free (despite TIFF audiences’ lack of affinity for indoor mask-wearing at literally any time), I’m exhausted, but hopeful for the coming year in queer and trans film. On all spectrums, TIFF presented a veritable smorgasbord of filmic treats for all audiences, and I’m really hopeful that many of them, particularly this year’s excellent crop of Canadian indie fare, get picked up for further distribution.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to package my reflections from this year’s festival into a curated list of the queer and trans highlights (and lowlights) worth watching out for as these films hit the wider world in the coming weeks and months. And because TIFF kicks off Moira Rose’s favourite season (awards), why not dole out a few accolades along the way?
Allow me to present the very serious and important Xtra accolades of TIFF 2022.
Best surefire good time
Is Bros a gay movie for straight people? Or a straight movie for gay people? Both? Neither? Whatever the case, Bros is funny. It’s really funny, boasting a mile-a-minute joke pace and the cleverly pointed barbs that star and writer Billy Eichner has become known for. Eichner and Luke Macfarlane star as two commitment-phobic gay guys who fall in love. It’s the first big-budget rom-com from a major studio to feature queer leads, and Bros is somewhat burdened by that weight. As I wrote in my full review for Xtra, the film often it feels like it’s trying to be something for everyone on the LGBTQ2S+ spectrum, with varying degrees of success.
But while the film’s politics and social commentary may be a touch muddy, it’s still a crowd-pleaser. The massive screening hall was packed for the Friday-night premiere, and while the bar lineup was largely six-foot-tall cis white gays buying double vodka sodas, the crowd itself was diverse and having the time of their lives. If you’re looking for the movie that will teach your mom what poppers are, introduce you to the concept of a “gay trauma coaster” or is just something to put on when you’re tipsy with your other queer pals, this will certainly be a hit. The box office will likely follow suit.
Best film you will never see (but deserve to!)
The People’s Joker
Midnight Madness is a hallowed part of the TIFF experience, kicking off at 11:59 p.m. and running often past the end of public transit service. This is the slot that the weird, wacky, spooky and fun films play in (opening night of Midnight Madness this year was the Weird Al biopic, for example).
No film embodied that spirit more in 2022, or honestly in TIFF history, than The People’s Joker. The project is both the work of an auteur (alt-comedy filmmaker Vera Drew co-wrote, directed and stars in the film) and a collective (more than 100 artists contributed in some way or another). To describe it simply as a trans take on the superhero genre, as promotional descriptions have attempted to, would do it no service. Instead, imagine the DIY aesthetic of the fan-made Shrek Retold, mixed with a hyper-specific homage to Joel Schumacher, topped with a heaping pile of emotional development and impeccable trans in-jokes—a connection drawn between T4T relationships and video games rated “T for Teen” had me howling.
Despite the jokes, I found myself sobbing by film’s end, because it felt like a movie for me and the community I love. It’s a movie that accurately represented everything from the shitty emotionally abusive transmasc dirtbags we all know, to RuPaul fracking jokes. And, most importantly, it’s an incredibly heartfelt story of coming of age, coming out and finding your voice.
The reason you may never see it is, frankly, stupid. On the eve of its premiere, Drew and her team were hit by legal threats from Warner Bros. over the superhero properties depicted in the film. The film’s remaining screenings were pulled from TIFF. Drew says she’s fighting back, but if the film ever sees further release, it will likely not be what we saw that Tuesday night.
It’s such a shame, because I would give anything to bottle the feeling of those two hours in the theatre at midnight seeing such a complete, innovative and personal artistic vision that cut to my very core. I want to live in that film forever, and for it to become the indie theatre late-night cult classic it deserves to be. #FreeThePeoplesJoker, because the world deserves to see it.
Harry Styles, My Policeman
My Policeman isn’t a terrible film. In fact, it’s mostly just fine. A meandering British drama, the story follows a young couple, Marion and Tom (Emma Corrin and Harry Styles), and a man named Patrick (David Dawson) who enters their lives and begins a hidden affair with Tom. My most resounding thought leaving the screening was that a legion of grandparents are going to love it, between the orchestral score, prim period costuming and sort of dour reflection on love, family and duty to one another. The audience at my screening was clearing split into older folks who love British dramas, skeptical queers and, of course, a pile of young Harry Styles fans.
It’s the loud presence of this latter group that is emblematic of the film’s greatest flaw: Styles. Corrin, Dawson and the trio of actors who play older versions of the characters are all wonderful and deserving of TIFF’s acting ensemble award, but Styles sticks out like a sore thumb. His Tom is all stilted line-readings and puppy-dog eyes in stark contrast to Dawson’s intriguingly nuanced take on a self-aware queer man in the mid-20th century. The pop star is outmatched at every turn, and the film suffers as a result.
Further, the shit show of Styles’s ongoing press tour for his other big-ticket fall film, Don’t Worry Darling, has obviously bled into how audiences will receive this film. There were snickers throughout the crowd at several key line-readings from Styles and his comments about how the film’s queer sex scenes were more “tender” than other on-screen depictions of gay sex (whatever that means) hung awkwardly over every intimate moment between Tom and Patrick.
My Policeman would be a better film without Styles in it.
Most likely to make you cry happy tears
I didn’t have any huge expectations going into ROSIE, Gail Maurice’s debut feature, but left the theatre utterly charmed by this delightful film. Maurice, best known for acting in the TV series Trickster, has cast her real-life partner Mélanie Bray as Fred, a Francophone artist living in Montreal in the late ’80s on the edge of poverty. After her adopted sister dies, Fred’s six-year-old Indigenous niece Rosie (Keris Hope Hill) comes to live with her, and finds chosen family with Fred and her two queer gender nonconforming friends Flo (Constant Bernard) and Mo (Alex Trahan).
It’s a simple film, following Fred’s reluctance to let Rosie into her life and then her fight to keep her. Maurice says the film was inspired by her own coming-of-age as a queer Indigenous person in the ’80s, and the found family and community she found in Saskatchewan gay bars. ROSIE is framed through the wandering and wonderous eyes of its titular character, where joy and love can be found everywhere from an abandoned car in a scrapyard to a drag performance set to ’80s power rock. The drag show sequence in particular, which sees Rosie help Mo overcome their nerves and get on stage, struck a particularly emotional chord amidst the current debate around kids and drag.
At every step, ROSIE argues for the value of found queer family for kids and the joys that can come from building that family. It’s a message we need to hear as often as possible right now.
New Canadian stars to watch
Carmen Madonia, Something You Said Last Night
Ziyin Zheng, Queens of the Qing Dynasty
Speaking of CanCon, I was particularly struck by the festival’s lineup of emerging queer and trans talent from Canada, many appearing at the festival in their first on-screen roles.
I raved about Luis De Filippis’s debut feature, Something You Said Last Night, in my full review, but its star Carmen Madonia in particular deserves extra praise. As Ren, a sullen young adult trans woman on a family vacation, Madonia is all furrowed glances cast up from rapidly texting fingers. But amidst all of that, she exhibits a grounded warmth and love that projects through the screen straight to the audience’s heart. It’s a delicate balance, and Madonia’s ability to pull it off makes me excited for her future projects.
In Ashley McKenzie’s feature Queens of the Qing Dynasty, first-time actor Ziyin Zheng brings so much of themself to their role as An, a genderqueer Chinese immigrant hospital volunteer who befriends a young woman (Sarah Walker) on suicide watch. Zheng, who met McKenzie at a party, also served as a script consultant on the film and informed much of how An was written. In an incredibly stylistic and frenetic film, Zheng rises above the noise to bring a grounded warmth to An.
Worst disservice to a beloved icon
God, Brendan Fraser deserves better. Already a queer fav for his work in Gods and Monsters and one half of a leading pair that ignited millions of little bisexual hearts in The Mummy (Rachel Weisz, this queer in particular also thanks you for your service), Fraser has been largely out of the public eye in recent years, which many attribute to his coming forward in 2018 with accusations about being sexually assaulted by then Hollywood Foreign Press Association member Philip Berk in 2003.
The Whale is supposed to be Fraser’s big comeback and shot at an Oscar: a transformational and singular role directed by an auteur (Darren Aronofsky). Fraser will likely be a perennial name throughout awards season, based on early results, though it’s a shame that his historic comeback has to be in such a stilted, clunky and grossly fatphobic film.
Coming out of tepid reviews and plenty of online discourse following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, I went into The Whale with a cautiously open mind for a Monday-morning screening. Fraser, by far the best part of the film, plays Charlie, a gay online writing instructor with an endless twinkle in his eye, who also happens to weigh 600 pounds. The film takes place almost entirely in his apartment as his health declines, and various characters stop by to support him, rip him off or pray for his salvation. The film is based on a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter (which, notably, also saw its lead in a fat suit).
In the film, we get two hours of Aronofsky’s camera leering at Charlie’s body (a combination of fat suit and CGI) in service of a plot that repeatedly shames his size and depicts him as a monstrous figure. Peppered throughout are difficult moments bizarrely framed almost as jokes—when Charlie drops a key and is unable to pick it up, my theatre echoed with uncomfortable laughter. Coupled with the cacophony of sobs at the film’s unsurprisingly tragic ending, and I can’t help but feel like Aronosfky failed to humanize Charlie in any way.
This could win Brendan Fraser an Oscar, and Brendan Fraser should have an Oscar. So we just need to get through next spring, and then we can all forget about this mess of a film later.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Is Rian Johnson’s blockbuster sequel to 2019’s Knives Out explicitly queer? Not necessarily. But the film does feature a roster of stars beloved by the queers (Kathryn Hahn, Kate Hudson) and of course actual queer icon Janelle Monáe in a mysterious but central role. The less said about the plot the better if you want to be surprised, but needless to say, there are rich people, an island, some murder and plenty of mystery: all things queers love.
But beyond that (and more of interest to the queers) it has arguably the greatest production pizzazz and costuming style of all of the big-ticket TIFF premieres. A sequel to Knives Out had a lot to live up to in the style department following the love for Chris Evans’s sweater in the original, and I’m happy to report that Glass Onion does right in the fashion department. Monáe alone can do no wrong in black and white, with a haircut so sharp I would gladly let it slit my throat. And Hudson stuns in a series of flowing, brightly coloured and textured beach-going garments. Plus, Daniel Craig as the detective Benoit Blanc sports a striped swimming costume so perfect it’s going to define butch and transmasc fashion for years to come.
Best “based on a true story”
Many festival films, particularly in the lead-up to Oscars season, come based on real life (look only to Spielberg’s People’s Choice triumph with The Fabelmans as proof of film-fest audience love for true stories). But a much quieter, though incredibly impactful, autobiography also made its debut at TIFF in Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection, a follow-up to his wonderful documentary about homeless queer and trans youth, Pier Kids.
Based on Bratton’s own experience being gay in the U.S. Marines, The Inspection stars Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, a Black queer homeless man who enlists in the military. During training, he undergoes brutal homophobic abuse and ridicule from his instructors and fellow recruits, but pushes onward. From that description, if you’re expecting simply a trauma-filled queer drama, I’m happy to report that Bratton’s film is much more nuanced. Beyond touching on issues of masculinity and homophobia in the military, the film also brings together themes of solidarity and community, alongside questioning of the role of the military as a bastion of masculinity.
Pope is fantastic as a sensitive yet hardened young man pushing through on sheer will alone, and Gabrielle Union is devastating as his mother in two scenes bookending the film. Bratton’s direction is stylish and emotional, bridging fantasy bathhouse sequences set in the base camp showers with scenes of the incredible abuse French must endure.
Here’s hoping Bratton (and Pope and Union, for that matter) make it into the awards conversation this season, because they certainly deserve recognition for such a tightly constructed and executed film.
Most hope for the future
The TIFF trans filmmakers summit
For many press, industry folks and filmmakers, an essential part of the TIFF experience is the slew of parties, socials and cocktail hours. While we’re all here to see movies, we’re also here to network and mingle and awkwardly stand around after a full day of screenings. Over the week, I attended several such events, spending a good amount of time downing my fair share of free canapes and IPAs before peacing out early after a few stilted conversations about how I work at Xtra, not the gossip site Extra.
But one event that left a resounding impression on me personally and professionally was the trans filmmakers summit on Sunday. Featuring panels from trans actors and trans filmmakers, alongside an award ceremony honouring actor Ts Madison’s contributions to the industry, the entire event was a celebration of trans folks in film both behind the camera and in front of it. In particular, a panel featuring actors Carmen Madonia (Something You Said Last Night), Alina Khan (Joyland) and Miyoko Anderson (Soft) cast light on three rising stars in the industry who are worth watching in the coming years as potential breakouts.
All three films are joyous explorations of queerness, gender and sexuality that feel lived in and real and necessary in 2022. And all three actors embody real trans people with a lived-in naturalism the film industry needs more of. I’m so excited to see what all three of them do next. Alongside a panel of filmmakers featuring Something You Said Last Night director Luis De Filippis, Sort Of creator and star Bilal Baig and filmmaker Lucah Rosenberg-Lee, the event as a whole showcased the bright future of trans film.
And that’s it for my takes on TIFF 2022. Overall, the festival was a huge success, and I’m excited for everyone to get to see many of these films in the coming weeks and months. Did you get a chance to see any of these? Weigh in in the comments below.