35th Reeling Film Festival Brings LGBTQ Films to Chicago

The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival known as Reeling—the second-oldest LGBTQ film festival in the world—kicks off its 35th annual events on Thursday, September 21, running through September 28 at the Landmark Century Center Theater on N. Clark Ave. A few of the films were made available to Third Coast for early preview, and we share our overview here.

The film festival kicks off with Hello Again, the film adaptation of the sexually charged 1994 Off-Broadway musical from Michael John LaChiusa. Directed by Northwestern University alum Tom Gustafson (Were the World Mine), the film features an ensemble cast that includes “Pretty Little Liars” star Tyler Blackburn, Cheyenne Jackson, Broadway staple Audra McDonald, Rumer Willis, Steppenwolf ensemble member Martha Plimpton, and “Glee” star Jenna Ushkowitz. Stars Blackburn and Ushkowitz, director Gustafson, and writer-producer Cory Krueckeberg will be in attendance for opening night, which takes place at the Music Box Theatre on Thursday at 7pm, with a pre-show reception in the Music Box Lounge beginning at 6pm.

Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton in Hello Again

Hello Again is a look at love and lust (both straight and gay) throughout the 20th century, featuring the primary cast members each playing multiple roles in different decades, often preceding major events in history (a pair of world wars, the sinking of the Titanic, etc.), when tensions are at a peak and sexuality might be the perfect act of desperation. Other cast members, all of whom have remarkable singing voices, include T.R. Knight, Sam Underwood (currently on “Fear the Walking Dead”), vocalist Al Calderon, and Nolan Gerard Funk, who was also featured on “Glee.” The reality of the work seems a bit heightened, and many of the relationships on display are just horny men and women, rather than couples actually in love, but in many ways, there’s something quite truthful in that. The underlying messages of the loneliness of empty sex ring true, and the music is wonderfully expressive and moving.

Coincidentally, Reeling’s official Closing Night film (at the Landmark Century Center Theater, where the rest of the fest takes place) is also a musical, albeit a different type altogether. Saturday Church is the powerful debut feature from writer-director Damon Cardasis. It centers around a black teen named Ulysses (Luka Kain) who struggles with the loss of his father and his sexuality in the face of a religious upbringing and his overpowering desire to wear women’s clothing and express himself through voguing. At its core, Saturday Church is a human drama about being torn apart by conflicting sides of one’s world.

Luka Kain in Saturday Church

But unexpectedly, the characters launch into emotionally fueled songs that seem constructed of pure experience, many of them quite destructive. Ulysses falls in with a group of transgender sex workers who take him under their collective wing and encourage him to experiment with looks and dating; every scene with them is an exercise in truth telling and outrageous humor. While at home, his mother (Margot Bingham) and aunt (Goodman Theatre regular Regina Taylor) are troubled by what is going on in this boy’s life. The film has its flaws, primarily with the acting from a fleet of first-time performers, but the heartfelt songs and Ulysses’ honest story carry the day.

Between opening and closing nights, Reeling presents an exciting slate of movies that showcase the diversity of the queer experience. Many of them have special guests visiting Chicago to support the festival screenings, including:

  • Actor-director Kit Williamson (“Mad Men”) and actor Van Hansis (“As the World Turns”) for Netflix's upcoming Eastsiders 3: Go West
  • Northwestern alum Adam Fried and director Rob Williams (Role/Play, Shared Rooms, Make the Yuletide Gay) for the world premiere of Happiness Adjacent, a bisexual love triangle set aboard a cruise ship
  • Stars Grant Davis & Ben Baur and writer-producer Carlos Pedraza from the musical romantic comedy Something Like Summer
  • Writer-director-star Christopher Schaap from the comedy Prom King, 2010
  • Writer-director Mike Roma from Dating My Mother, a comedy co-starring Kathryn Erbe and Kathy Najimy
  • Writer-director-star James Fanizza for his romantic drama Sebastian
  • Actor Nicole J. Pursell for The Ring Thing, about a lesbian couple facing the pressures of getting married now that it's legal
  • Writer-director Melissa Finnel from Sensitivity Training, a comedy in which an abrasive microbiologist becomes attracted to her sensitivity coach

Cast and crew from locally produced films En Algun Lugar, Tadeo Garcia's gay romantic drama set against the backdrop of the controversial U.S. immigration system, and Market Value, Wendell Etherly's compelling child-custody courtroom drama focused on a lesbian couple fighting to keep their adopted son, also will be in attendance.

Also on tap for Reeling are Trudie Styler's hotly anticipated directorial debut, the outrageous dramedy Freak Show, about the fictional high school "transvisionary" Billy Bloom, starring Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game), Bette Midler and Laverne Cox; the inspiring story of the long road to acceptance for Brooke Guinan, New York's first out transgender firefighter in Woman On Fire; and “Looking” actor Russell Tovey's performance in The Pass, the story of two football players whose reactions to the homoerotic tension between them as young men shape their divergent futures.

Other festival highlights include the critically acclaimed Sundance hit I Dream in Another Language, Mexican director Ernest Contreras' drama about two elderly men who are the last living people able to speak a dying language but who refuse to talk to each other; the eccentric Scottish film Seat in the Shadow, director Henry Coombes' film about an aging free-spirited artist who plays therapist for the young gay grandson of a friend; and Apricot Groves, Pouria Heidary Oureh's beautifully realized story about an Iranian-Armenian transman living in the U.S. who visits Armenia to ask his girlfriend's father for her hand in marriage.

To round out our coverage of this robust film festival, editor Lisa Trifone screened a few festival selections as well and shared the below takes on each:

After Louie - Alan Cumming stars as a grief-stricken artist navigating his way through life after his partner’s death in co-writer/director Vincent Gagliostro’s debut feature After Louie. He’s of an acting caliber not quite met by his castmates, and it’s his top-lining this thoughtful but flawed drama that ultimately saves it. The film is a political commentary wrapped up in a thin narrative; Sam pays younger men for sex, one of whom is willing to take the money to support him and his boyfriend (hello, sharing economy). Salacious terms aside, it attempts to be a study of the generational shift happening in the gay community, as a generation of young men come of age without firsthand knowledge of the AIDS crisis or Stonewall Inn. A bit over-earnest at times, it nevertheless gets an A for effort.

Alan Cumming in After Louie

Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall - If you’re over 25, you may have never heard of Todrick Hall, a one-time “American Idol” contestant, self-made YouTube star and friend to pop icons like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Behind the Curtain is part biopic, part concert doc, as it follow’s Hall through the planning, release and U.S. tour for his 2016 album “Straight Outta Oz.” Copyright infringement issues aside, the film is an often moving portrait an outsider kid (black, gay, into ballet and show tunes) who makes good, bringing his message of love and inclusivity to a generation of digital misfits and freaks. Too long by about 20 minutes (we get it, he’s an inspiration), it’s nevertheless a modern all-American success story, and likely a good companion piece to Gaga: Five Foot Two.

Center of My World - Filmmaker Jakob M. Erwa explores family drama, teenage friendships and budding sexuality in Center of My World, a Berlin Film Festival selection. Phil and his best friend Kat are inseparable, even if he and his twin sister Dianne are estranged. His free-spirited mother won’t tell them who their father is, and the siblings handle it differently. Phil falls hard for Nicholas, and their scenes between the sheets are quite romantic, the way promising young love should be. Unfortunately, the film adaptation of the novel by Andreas Steinhöfel gets a bit lost in the various plot lines, as scenes absent the heat between Phil and Nicholas are quite cool indeed.

A full schedule, festival passes, and individual tickets are available now at the Reeling Film Festival official site
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.