For anyone who experienced cinema in the 1990s, it seemed like all films revolving around the LGBT community focused on two subjects: HIV and coming out. The period produced some incredible work: Beautiful Thing, Get Real, Longtime Companion and Jeffery still have strong followings today.
Occasionally a film could break through as an uproarious comedy, like The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, or a story about aging like Gods and Monsters. Still, it took a while for queer films to evolve beyond an obsessive focus on gay men dying or coming out.
With San Francisco’s Frameline drawing to a close and the LA-based queer film festival Outfest kicking off now, a new trend appears to be taking hold: the coming-of-age film in all its glorious diversity. These stories deal with long-tread subjects like coming out, fighting for equality and finding love, but with a new twist—coming out now feels more like part of growing up rather than an earth-shattering revelation.
That doesn’t make the process easy, however, nor does it make for a lack of drama. Just as the LGBT community continues to progress and evolve as an essential aspect of American culture, so do our stories.
Is this the golden era of queer coming-of-age films? Check out these titles and decide for yourself…
1. Freak Show
Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnaSophia Robb, Bette Midler and Laverne Cox star in this stunningly good adaptation of the James St. James novel. Bullied queer teen Billy (Lawther) decides to fight back against his repressive school atmosphere with glitter and make-up. His flamboyant charms win him some unlikely friends as he decides to fight the establishment by running for Prom Queen. Hilarity ensues, along with one of the wildest coming-of-age tales ever to hit the screen.
2. Prom King 2010
Speaking of the prom, cinephile Charlie combs the streets of New York City looking for Hollywood-style love in Prom King 2010. Rather than finding the grand romance of From Here to Eternity or The Apartment, he finds a crazy world of leather bars and closeted freshmen. His hilarious quest for love becomes something else entirely, in this feel-good story from writer/director/star Christopher Schaap.
3. Saturday Church
Teenager Ulysses’ sexuality has begun to blossom, and he finds himself drawn toward the world of the queer and gender fluid. Living with an oppressive aunt, Ulysses takes to the streets of New York, where he discovers an underground world of fashion, music and fabulousness. An unusual (to say the least) musical set around the New York Ball scene, Saturday Church revels in one of the communities most overlooked cultural influences.
4. Beach Rats
Shirtless boys take a back seat to this gritty coming-of-age story, set around closeted teen Frankie. Growing up on the shores of New Jersey, he begins to explore his sexuality, and confront his own concepts of masculinity and shame. Beach Rats caused a stir at both Sundance and Frameline, and no doubt Outfest viewers will have their own strong opinions of the film. The shirtless boys are, however, more menacing than hot, and don’t expect a Hollywood ending to this one.
5. Something Like Summer
This musical starts like a bad porno about the closeted theatre boy in love with the popular high school jock, before turning into a very different kind of coming-of-age tale. Teen Benjamin has a torrid affair with “straight” jock Tim before graduating high school, and to handsome flight attendant Jace. When Tim appears back on the scene, Benjamin must confront the difficulties of his love life, and the painful realities of growing up.
Based on the acclaimed young adult novel series, Something Like Summer may prove one of this year’s sleeper hits.
6. Alaska is a Drag
Aspiring Alaskan drag queen Leo dreams of the glamour of stardom as he faces his mundane life as a factory worker. When he starts to fight back against his would-be queer bashers, Leo catches the attention of a local boxing coach who offers a chance at stardom, though not exactly the kind Leo intended. This dark comedy features performances by Margret Cho, Jason Scott Lee and Matt Dallas, and offers a coming-of-age tale that somehow manages to mix the best parts of Rocky with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
7. God’s Own Country
God’s Own Country arrives with a good deal of buzz and accolades from other festivals. The British film follows the story of Johnny, a small-town sheep farmer who crosses paths with the Romanian immigrant Gheorghe. The two take an immediate dislike to one another, in part because of Johnny’s anti-immigrant bigotry. The two eventually form a strong bond that leads them into an unlikely romance. Magnificently photographed on location in Northern England, God’s Own Country has a story that resonates with power in a post-Brexit/post-Trump era.
8. The Wound (Inxeba)
Just as treatment of queer people varies by culture, so does the concept of growing up. The Wound examines the initiation ritual to manhood among the Xhosa tribe of South Africa, and becomes a very new and shocking take on the coming-of-age genre. As one young man undergoes the rite of passage—which includes tortuous rituals—his questioning sexuality comes to the fore, as he forces his tribe to face their concepts of masculinity. Shot on location in some beautiful vistas, and featuring some powerful performances, The Wound subverts expectations, and provides a powerful reminder that the struggle for queer rights does not end at America’s borders.
9. Handsome Devil
Soon to hit Netflix, Handsome Devil features an unlikely friendship between a social outcast and a rugby jock. Set at an Irish boarding school, the geeky Ned and athletic Conor begin as Odd-Couple style roommates, before warming to one another, and revealing inner secrets. When the rest of the school begins the inevitable gay whispers, it causes both men to make some unlikely moves. Unlike contemporary Hollywood teens (looking at you, Spider-Man: Homecoming), Handsome Devil doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of school, or the angst of teen years. That alone makes the film more credible, and the emotional investment in the handsome young characters much, much deeper. A great soundtrack also adds a lot to the film’s appeal.
10. The Blue Hour
Coming from Thailand, this coming-of-age queer romance crosses into an unlikely genre: horror territory (though sadly not feature latter-day queer horror star, The Babadook). The Blue Hour follows two teen boys who find each other for a bit of romance via the internet. Googly-eyed romance, however this film is not. From there the film veers into the realm of psychological horror, as a trip to a garbage dump uncovers bodies, both literal and figurative. The Blue Hour divided critics when it played film festivals in 2016. Regardless, the movie does manage to subvert queer coming-of-age conventions, and does so with creepy flare. The film shows how poverty and lack of privacy make coming out even harder, even in impoverished nations.
This movie is not at Outfest, but streaming now on, of course, Netflix.