What To See @ NewFest 2019

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 22, 2019

The 31st edition of NewFest, New York's LGBTQ Film Festival, features more than 160 films (inclusive of shorts) from 32 countries and runs October 23-29th.

The Fest opens with Mike Doyle's lighthearted "Sell By," and closes with Rodrigo Bellot's potent "Tu Me Manques." The International Centerpiece is Sweden's Oscar submission, the subversive Levan Akin feature "And Then We Danced." And the U.S. Centerpiece is Martha Stephens' "To The Stars."

For more information and the complete list of films being shown, visit the New Fest website.

The festival's highlights include:

Opening Night: "Sell By"

Actor turned writer-director Mike Doyle's sweet and smart dramedy, "Sell By," features Scott Evans ("Grace and Frankie") and Augustus Prew as a couple feeling a five-year itch of sorts. A kick-ass (if sometimes overstuffed) ensemble, led by Kate Walsh and Patricia Clarkson, keeps things interesting and fun.

Closing Night: "Tu Me Manques"

Bolivia's officially Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film, Rodrigo Bellot's "Tu Me Manques" is an ambitious adaptation of his 2015 historic play that pushed LGBTQ acceptance forward in conservative Bolivia. The film boldly blends theatrical elements that actually enhance the film as Bellot examines two very different men trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one, crosscut with the journey of the young man who chose to die for fear of hurting his family. Or did he? Life, death, art, memory... all blur in this beguiling work.

Here are some more worthy features (based on what I viewed):


One of my favorite NewFest selections, "Benjamin" is writer-director Simon Amstell's endearing and oddly amusing tale of a young filmmaker (a perfectly cast Colin Morgan), with low self-esteem, trying to navigate a new crush on a hot French musician (lovable Phénix Brossard of "Departures") while dealing with his own designer set of emotional baggage. Like its characters, the film is adorable, sweet, and fabulously off-kilter. Jack Rowan nearly steals the pic as a wacky and sexually fluid actor who "paints his feelings."


Feel like being left in a state of WTF? From Austria, Gregor Schmidinger's "Nevrland" is quite an ambitious film centering on 17-year-old Jakob (a mesmerizing Simon Frühwirth) a lonely, neurotic boy who longs for connection. This original work boasts startling visuals that seem to channel David Lynch on a particularly freakish day.

"Siberia and Him"

I keep vacillating between annoyance and admiration for Viatcheslav Kopturevskiy's "Siberia and Him," a world premiere from Russia that dares to deal with queer love. On the one hand, the constant extreme closeups and protracted panoramic long shots prove frustrating and alienating. On the other hand, the story of a young farmhand and his cop brother in law caught up in a secret relationship does expose the self loathing and dangers of being gay in certain parts of the world (here, Siberia). And the uber-gloomy tone is ultimately appreciated. Kopturevskiy, in his first feature, shows promise, but needs to cine-dazzle less and spend more time on character development.

"Straight Up"

James Sweeney wears four filmic hats with his lively and infectious feature, "Straight Up." It's not easy and seemingly indulgent to produce, write, direct and co-star in a movie, but it works here because Sweeney keeps it all in check. As writer, he's penned a witting and charming script that never feels egomaniacal. As actor, he endears himself to us because his character riffs on his own idiosyncrasies. As director, he experiments just enough without taking away from the story. And he is wise enough to give the best scenes to his fabulous co-star, Katie Findlay. "Straight Up" is a witty and affecting look at why and how we delude ourselves.

"Tremors" ("Temblores")

Jayro Bustamante's "Tremors (Temblores)" has the feel of a crazy satire at first, until you realize that the narrative is the norm in certain evangelical families in Latin American countries—in this case, Guatemala. Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) leaves his family after he falls in love with a man, and is immediately ostracized until he agrees to see the error of his ways. "Tremors" is a profoundly disturbing and urgent work.


A twisty take on the vampire genre, Brad Michael Elmore's "Bit" is a film that feels like it would be right at home on the CW. It has a "time's up" theme built in ("Men can't handle power"), an attractive cast, stylized camerawork, a cool soundtrack, and lots of blood. The gay factor isn't super high, but the camp factor makes up for it.

"Zen in the Ice Rift" ("Zen sul ghiaccio sottile")

Maia Zendari (Eleonora Conti) is a petulant, angry trans teen living in a small Italian mountain town. She is harassed at school. Strangely, yet quite believably, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with the popular Vanessa (Susanna Acchiardi), the girlfriend of one of her bullying hockey teammates. As the two get to know one another, Zen's icy demeanor begins to thaw - until it doesn't. Writer-director Margherita Ferri has cast "Zen in the Ice Rift" well, and the film boasts stunning camerawork. But after an absorbing first two-thirds, the film veers off in an all-too-predictable direction and, finally, towards a denouement where it feels like Ferri ran out of ideas.

"Monsters" ("Monstri")

From Romania, Marius Olteanu's "Monsters (Monstri)" is a subtle slow-burn work that presents a married couple in separate moments from the same night in their lives — he on a pretty pathetic, but very real, Grindr hook up — which culminates in an act three where the two come together to exorcise some demons. I appreciated the film's structure and the two terrific leads (Judith Slate and Cristian Popa), but in the end the relentlessly grim tone and lack of real depth of characterization had me feeling indifferent.

And 4 Top Docs

Tom Shepard's timely doc, "Unsettled," follows four queer refugees as they escape their homophobic countries and attempt to relocate in the U.S. They include those fleeing from Syria, Angola, and the Congo. "Unsettled" captures the hope that existed during the Obama years and that were then decimated with the election of Trump.

"Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street" explores the fascinating life of Mark Patton, star of the sequel to the horror franchise *subtitled "Freddy's Revenge"), a film demonized by fans dripping with gay hate. "Scream, Queen" is a story of survival amidst the deep-seated homophobia in Hollywood, especially during the first decade of the AIDS crisis. Patton's career took off when he was cast in Robert Altman's "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," starring Cher and Karen Black. "Nightmare" brought the promise of stardom but, instead, caused his career to plummet. Now, after over three decades, he has triumphantly returned to prominence with his heroic story.

In Cody Stickels' "A Night at Switch 'n' Play" we are privy to unique Burlesque and drag (or draglesque) performances from a popular Brooklyn troupe, but what is most stirring and revealing are the interviews with the artists where they get to share why performing is important to them. The film examines this safe and empowering environment, where all-gender performers can explore different ideas of femininity, as well as push boundaries when it comes to sexual attraction and comfort.

"He was the first genuinely shameless gay man that I ever met," says Tony-winning producer Manny Azenburg (with great admiration) about Leonard Soloway, a Broadway legend who isn't that well known outside of Great White Way circles. Jeff Wolk's doc "Leonard Soloway's Broadway" means to change that by chronicling his 70-year show biz career. The film's framing device is Soloway trying to get a new show called "Tappin' Thru Life" off the ground as the film bounces back and forth in the master's career. It's a flattering portrait of a proud gay producer (who had many lovers) and his drive and commitment.

A footnote: Soloway's passion piece, "Fellow Travelers" by Jack Canfora, explores the tempestuous relationship between Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, and has still not been produced in NYC, despite terrific reviews out of town.

For more information and the complete list of films being shown, visit the New Fest website.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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