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Trans teen comes out in Mexican doc ‘Things We Dare Not Do’

Slice-of-life chronicle nominated for two Ariel Awards

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‘Things We Dare Not Do’ streams on PBS through Nov. 24. (Image courtesy of PBS)

In today’s explosion of the documentary market, where every week brings a new assortment of intriguing entries so abundant it’s impossible to fit them all into your viewing schedule, there are more films about the lives and culture of LGBTQ+ people than ever before. This is clearly a good thing. But while so many of them are centered on our history and our heroes – on the big, the important, the culturally impactful, and the world-changing – it’s worth taking note when one comes along that brings a more microscopic focus to queer experience and reminds us that our community is made up of millions of individual beings – each of them with their own, unique story to tell.

One such film, seemingly so small and unassuming as to slip under the radar in a field of more titanic choices, is “Cosas Que No Hacemos (Things We Dare Not Do)”, which made its broadcast premiere on PBS’s “American Documentary/POV” Oct. 25 and is available to stream for free through Nov. 24.

The second feature film from Mexican director and cinematographer Bruno Santamaría, this brief (barely 75 minutes) but luminous slice-of-life chronicle might be small, but it has already proven its might. Nominated for two Ariel Awards by Mexico’s Academy of Cinematographic Arts, it is also the winner of the Gold Hugo Award for Best Documentary and the Gold Q-Hugo Award for Best LGBTQ+ Film at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was chosen as an official selection at numerous others, including both the prestigious Hot Docs and DOC NYC film festivals. Touted as giving voice to “a powerful coming-of-age story,” its quietly hypnotic storytelling quickly draws you into such an intimate perspective on one queer person’s journey that it’s easy to see why it has earned such accolades.

“Things We Dare Not Do” takes us to a small Mexican coastal village called El Roblito, where 16-year-old Ñoño lives what seems to be an idyllic existence with his loving family. He spends his days playing with the free-spirited younger children of the town and staging elaborate community dance productions, but there is something inside of him, a secret he’s been holding, that can no longer be denied. Defying gender norms, Ñoño bravely works up the courage to tell his family they wants to live their life as a woman – a decision that comes with potentially dangerous consequences in a country shrouded in machismo and transphobia. 

The coming out of a young trans person is clearly a timely and important subject to be documented on film, but under Santamaría’s lyrical guidance that process is part of a bigger experience. Ñoño is part of a community, from which their life is inextricable, a single thread woven into the tapestry of a larger world. While they remain in the center of the film – often wordlessly, a presence made impactful to us by our knowledge of his still-undisclosed inner life – they are seen in the context of day-to-day life in El Roblito. It’s a place where family is central, where generational traditions are honored and perpetuated within the daily routine of the community, and where the rhythms and patterns of existence that have repeated for centuries and longer exert their pressure on every aspect of individual development.

It’s captured beautifully, with exquisite cinematography by the director himself that juxtaposes the serene beauty of rural Mexico against the strength, bravery and spirit of a young queer person working to reconcile his inner life with his identity in the community, and through the course of the film, right alongside their family and the rest of the village, Ñoño is both participant and witness for many important community events. Some of these are joyful, such as the film’s magical opening, featuring a visit from Santa Claus – borne over the town in an aerial vehicle held aloft by a giant rainbow parachute – who distributes candy to the delighted children below. Some are mundane, like a community movie night and the sound of informational civic announcements being broadcast via loudspeaker in the background, and some celebratory, such as a festive graduation party for the school children of the village. There are more ominous communal touchstones, too; a violent shooting which takes place at that very celebration has a palpable effect on the imaginations of the children for days afterward.

With this slow-paced but bustling environment as a backdrop, Ñoño’s journey unfolds furtively, in powerful yet breathlessly simple private moments shared only with Santamaría’s camera: a secretive trip to the beach to don drag for a few hastily snapped selfies, the late-night ritual of scrolling through a gender-bent social media feed at bedtime with the dim glow of his phone’s touchscreen providing the only light in the darkness of their life, their anxious but resolute on-camera declaration of their intention to come out as trans to their parents. These are small, quiet, undramatic events, but their cumulative effect pays off a hundredfold in the climactic sequence, where Ñoño finally works up the courage to ask for permission from their family – especially from his traditional, macho, hard-working, and often absent father – to begin living as a woman. There’s no shouting, no confrontations, no dramatic outbursts, but the intensity of emotion that comes in that scene is electrifying, nonetheless.

That it all comes together so unforgettably with what appears to be so little effort reflects the director’s own journey in making the film. Santamaría says of the process:

“It’s very moving to think that we are about to share the work that we started six years ago, to share the encounter we experienced. What began as a secret in my life led us to an idea, that idea led us to a journey, and the journey to an encounter. When I met Dayanara [the name by which Ñoño goes now] everything changed, the idea, the trip, the film and our lives. ‘Things We Dare Not Do’ is the result of this journey of dreams, accidents and experiences; a film that seeks to share the feeling of the coming-of-age experience of an adolescent who takes a brave step in her process of emancipation, in her process of growing up.”

In a time when trans rights – especially for young people – face persistent and venomous assault from phobic far right political factions who aim to negate the truth of trans experience, it’s invaluable to create space in which the truth of those experiences can be explored with nuance, authenticity, and empathy. By taking one young person’s struggle for queer identity out of the usual urban setting we’ve come to expect, Bruno Santamaría’s quietly monumental documentary provides a much-appreciated fresh perspective on the issue; more than that, it delivers a moving tale of emancipation that is sure to stick with you – and inspire you – long after the credits roll.

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‘Wildhood’ explores queer Indigenous experience

An example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime

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Joshua Odjick and Phillip Lewitski star in ‘Wildhood.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

It’s hardly news to say that the movies have a less-than-ideal track record when it comes to authentic representation – or, really, any representation at all – of Indigenous people. For most of its history, Hollywood’s “dream machine” dutifully perpetuated the narrative that, with very few exceptions, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and even after the cultural tide began to turn, filmmakers who attempted to propagate a more compassionate viewpoint usually muted their efforts with stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans that presented them either as comic relief or tragic victims of oppression – when they weren’t being idealized as magical fonts of ancient wisdom, that is – and did little to convey the reality that they were really just human beings like the rest of us.

It goes without saying that the LGBTQ community can relate. But though things have gotten somewhat better for us in recent years, we are still hard pressed to think of many examples of films in which Indigenous people have not been essentially marginalized – and when we try to think of movies with Indigenous people who are also queer, the best most of us can do is “Little Big Man,” the 1970 Arthur Penn western in which Dustin Hoffman is raised by a Sioux Nation tribe and grows up with a Two Spirit character named Little Horse (played by Native actor Robert Little Star) as his friend. For the record, it’s a sympathetic portrayal, if not quite fully drawn. It was also nearly 60 years ago, and we’re still waiting for another mainstream movie to show us a more authentic vision of queer Native experience.

While Hollywood continues to drag its feet on correcting that gap, however, Canadian/L’nu Two Spirit/nonbinary filmmaker Bretten Hannam has been hard at work to bring their own perspective to the screen – and their debut feature film, “Wildhood,” which launches on Hulu June 24, is as much a breath of trope-free air as one could wish.

Disregarding expectations about Indigenous identity right out of the gate, it centers on Link (Phillip Lewitski), a half-Mi’kmaq teenager who lives with his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) in a rural trailer park on the coast of Nova Scotia. Their home life is toxic, with an abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes) more interested in training them for a life of crime than in taking care of their basic needs; when Link learns that his Mi’kmaw mother may still be alive – despite what he had been told since early childhood – he abruptly decides to steal away with Travis and make a run for it, hoping to locate her and find a better life in the process.

Ill-prepared for a cross-country journey, an early encounter brings them quickly under the wing of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Two Spirit Mi’kaq pow wow dancer traveling from gig to gig. Though Link is hesitant to trust this interloper and the two are frequently at odds, he gradually warms to Pasmay, and an emotional bond begins to grow between them as the three young travelers make their way across the Canadian wilderness together.

It’s not hard to gather where things go between Link and Pasmay, and together with the quest to reconnect Link to his estranged mother and the Native heritage she represents, it should be obvious enough that this is a coming-of-age tale whose protagonist yearns to embrace more than one neglected facet of his identity. Yet though it might be easy to classify “Wildhood” as a teen “coming-out” movie, it would also be misleadingly dismissive.

Like its central character, it’s a movie with many questions to be asked and answered, and sexuality is only one of the many elements woven together in Hannam’s briskly paced yet intricately layered screenplay. No one in the movie needs to “come out,” exactly; it’s easily gleaned that Link knows from the start that he is gay, or at least someplace on the queer spectrum, even if he doesn’t know that getting comfortable with that fact might be tied up in the journey ahead of him. As for Pasmay, they’re fully comfortable with their Two Spirit nature, yet the past trauma of family rejection is something they have yet to fully overcome. As these two walk together – accompanied by the one-eyed but clear-sighted Travis, who is working through family issues of his own – their growing closeness requires them to grapple with these lingering fears, providing a framework through which Hannam can subtly illuminate the differences between the world views held by white and Indigenous cultures.

With an Indigenous queer filmmaker behind the camera, the takeaway from that contrast inevitably emphasizes the opposition between two different cultural conceptions of queerness itself, and rightly so. As for their direction, Hannam’s remarkably self-assured visual storytelling effortlessly complements the nuances of their screenplay to mesmerizing effect, making all these intellectual-sounding themes arise like thoughts in a meditation, to be noted as they pass and remembered later. No doubt it helped that “Wildhood” was expanded by Hannam from an award-winning 2019 short; in any case, the result is a film with an easy, natural flow that neither shies from emotion nor dwells in it, and culminates exactly where we hoped while taking us places we never expected to go. 

As for the acting – a crucial element in making any film rise to its highest aspirations – Hannam’s cast not only serves them well, but are so perfectly attuned to their movie’s delicate spirit that they seem not to be performing at all. The nonbinary Odjick, charismatic without being showy, exudes a confident compassion that makes a perfect complement to Lewitski’s awkward and angry teen rebel, and the easy chemistry between them helps to make the latter’s lowering of defenses all the more believable. Winters-Anthony gives a stunningly genuine performance as Travis, helping to bring full weight to the all-important theme of chosen family; and Michael Greyeyes (the film’s most recognizable face, thanks to TV roles in “True Detective” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” among other titles) gives a memorable turn as a helpful stranger who facilitates Link’s eventual reunion with his mother – in exchange for a favor, of course.

“Wildhood” comes to Hulu after becoming a hit on the Festival Circuit in 2021, where it was an official selection at both TIFF and AFI Fest and won awards at both the Canadian Screen Awards (for Odjick’s performance) and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. That provenance is a testament to the importance of such festivals in amplifying the voices of marginalized artists and allowing them to tell their stories – but it’s not the reason for putting the movie at the top of your must-stream list, nor is the fact that it’s an embarrassingly rare example of Indigenous queer inclusion on the screen. Ultimately, the reason for watching “Wildhood” is that it is an example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime, existing at the intersection of personal experience, public enlightenment, and popular entertainment.

That’s a big burden to bear, but “Wildhood” never feels weighed down. On the contrary, it leaves us with a sense of freedom and acceptance that is lighter than air. 

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Summer of 2022: a queer screen roundup

Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror flick ‘They/Them’

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Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror film ‘They/Them.’ (Photo courtesy Peacock)

Since the summer season starts with Pride month, we can always count on June bringing plenty of great LGBTQ entertainment options to our screens. This year has been particularly bountiful – we’ve already highlighted several standout titles for our readers, like the smart, sophisticated, and stingingly funny rom-com “Fire Island” (now streaming on Hulu) and the dazzlingly diverse re-imagination of the iconic series “Queer as Folk” (available to watch on Peacock), as well as the return of “Love, Victor,” Hulu/Disney’s popular coming out/coming of age series (beginning its third and final season on June 15) – so it’s understandable if viewers are still making their way through these and some of the other movies and shows on our must-see list.

If you’re one of those who are still catching up, however, you’d be well advised to do it quickly. June is not quite done rolling out its offerings, and that’s just the beginning. The rest of summer has more in store for queer viewers – and once again, the Blade is here to offer some suggested titles that we think are worth looking out for in the weeks to come.

Being BeBe (Now streaming, Apple TV/Prime Video/broadcast premiere June 21 on Fuse)

Director Emily Branham brings us this intimate documentary charting 15 years in the life of drag performer Marshall Ngwa (aka BeBe Zahara Benet), who immigrated to America from the homophobic environment of his native Cameroon before becoming the first champion on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and launching a career as one the leading artists celebrating Black Queer Excellence today. It’s an up-close look at a performer whose emotional journey raises timely concerns at the intersection of LGBTQ, BIPOC, and immigrant lives today.

The Umbrella Academy, Season 3 (June 22, Netflix)

The popular comic-book-inspired fantasy drama series comes back for a much-anticipated third installment after leaving its titular collection of superhero siblings stranded in a strange timeline at the end of the last one. Hip and irreverent, this violent, decidedly adult superhero saga had a huge cult following even before Netflix brought it to the screen, and show creator Steve Blackman’s slick, stylish adaptation of it has spawned a whole new army of fans – many of them queer, thanks to the material’s inclusion of two queer characters among the leads and an “outsider” vibe that gives it a generally queer sensibility. This season will surely be essential viewing for LGBTQ viewers, since it marks the return of Elliot Page to the character he originated before transitioning, in a storyline carefully crafted by Blackman (who consulted with GLAAD and brought in writer Thomas Page McBee to consult, alongside Page himself) in which the character (formerly Vanya) transitions to become Viktor and begins using he/him pronouns – a historic moment in television, whether you’re a fan of superhero shows or not. Besides Page, the series stars Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Justin H. Min, Colm Feore, Ritu Arya, and Justin Cornwell.

Where the Crawdads Sing (July 15, in theaters)

Though Delia Owens’ best-selling novel does not tell a specifically queer story, it has drawn many queer fans. That’s probably because its lead character Kya, an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina, is relegated to the status of “other” when she is drawn into the nearby town community by two young men – and it doesn’t help matters when one of them turns up dead. Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., and David Strathairn, this screen adaptation was written by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scribe Lucy Alibar and directed by Olivia Newman.

Anything’s Possible (July 22, Prime Video)

We may have thought we had seen all multi-hyphenate performer Billy Porter’s many talents, but we were wrong. The Tony- and Emmy-winning Porter makes his debut as a feature film director with this “delightfully modern” Gen Z coming-of-age story about a confident trans high school girl named Kelsa who is busily navigating her way through senior year when she discovers that a shy classmate has developed a crush on her. Written by Ximena García Lecuona, the story is described as “a romance that showcases the joy, tenderness, and pain of young love,” and it stars Eva Reign, Abubakr Ali, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. And in case you’re wondering, Porter does not appear, himself – though he is credited as Executive Music Producer alongside Justin Tranter, which is yet another reason to look forward to this one.

Uncoupled (July 29, Netflix)

Neil Patrick Harris returns to the sitcom milieu that has brought him fame in a sitcom so perfect for him it’s shocking nobody ever thought to make it before – but perhaps we had to wait for him to be the right age to play Michael, a 40-something gay man who thinks he has a picture perfect life until his husband blindsides him by walking out the door and away from their marriage after 17 years together. He’s now confronted with the nightmare scenario of being middle-aged, queer, and single in New York City – but when he starts to recognize the possibilities of living a single life, he decides to make the most of it. From “Emily in Paris” creator Darren Star and longtime “Modern Family” producer Jeffrey Richman, it looks to be a prime opportunity to enjoy Harris at his comedic best in a sharp, sexy, and very queer eight episodes of television.

They/Them (August 5, Peacock)

From horror cinema heavy-hitters Blumhouse Productions comes this queer fright flick (pronounced “they-slash-them”) described as a “queer empowerment story set at a gay conversion camp” and starring Kevin Bacon as a counselor hoping to help his “guests” find “a new sense of freedom” by shedding their queerness. Unfortunately, a mysterious killer starts claiming victims, and the campers must work together to protect themselves from more than just heteronormative programming. Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (also responsible for the beloved horror series “Penny Dreadful”) created, wrote, and directs, bringing his vision as an out gay man to a classic genre with surprisingly few queer entries. Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Theo Germaine, Carrie Preston, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch, and Darwin del Fabro star.

Besides all these, don’t forget we also have new seasons of queer-inclusive sitcoms “Rutherford Falls” (June 16, Peacock) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (July 12, FX), so there will be more than enough strong LGBTQ content to hold us over until the release of Billy Eichner’s hotly anticipated gay rom-com “Bros” in September – but you’ll have to wait until our Fall Preview issue to find out more about that.

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Margaret Cho on ‘Fire Island’ and the state of stand-up

‘We laughed every day’ making new film

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Margaret Cho returns to film in ‘Fire Island’ out June 3. (Photo by Mary Taylor)

Could there be an Emmy Award in Margaret Cho’s future? In Hulu’s “Fire Island”(premiering June 3), as well as on HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” Cho’s uncharacteristic restraint gives her queer characters, Erin and Utada respectively, an admirable depth and humanity. Additionally, Cho has an upcoming appearance on the Emmy Award-winning “Hacks”(as herself), and ongoing guest-starring roles in a multitude of popular shows. Never one to sit idle, Cho will be taking her stage act on the road throughout the coming months. Busy as she is, Margaret was gracious enough to make time to answer a few questions.

BLADE: Margaret, in the new movie “Fire Island,” you play Erin, who’s described by one of the characters as a “career brunch server, age unknown, lesbian queen.” What was it about Erin that spoke to you and made you want to portray her?

MARGARET CHO: I just love the script. I’m a big fan of Joel Kim Booster, and his comedy and his writing, and as a person. I wanted to be a part of the film. I love Andrew Ahn’s direction. I love Bowen (Yang). It was really special to do this. The “career brunch server” was so appealing. Everything about this character is a lot of fun, and so it was just perfect. We had a blast doing it.

BLADE: It looks that way! Erin is the wise lesbian housemother to her gaggle of younger gays. Is this an aspect of your personality that also transfers to your off-screen life?

CHO: Absolutely! The elder gay. The crone. It’s also the old lesbian who’s burned all of her bridges with the current lesbians her age and has to mine the younger generation for friendship. It’s very fun, it’s really cold, and it’s very realistic to me.

BLADE: What was the best part for you about acting with rising comic actors such as Bowen and Joel, whom you mentioned, as well as Matt Rogers?

CHO: We laughed every day. We had such a good time. Outside of my dressing room, every day, there were full-on reenactments of entire “Real Housewives” episodes. Full Tiffany Pollard monologues from “I Love New York.” It was like Shakespeare in the Park, but it was “Real Housewives” by the trailer. It was exciting. I just love those guys.

BLADE: Erin was able to afford to purchase the Fire Island house following winning a settlement involving a piece of glass and a major Italian chain restaurant. Do you think our current culture is more litigious than necessary?

CHO: I don’t know. I think the character is just really savvy and knows where to make an opportunity for herself. I think that’s really more it. I don’t know if it was necessarily because of the culture or the time or whatever. But I think that she’s just smart about doing what she can to get something.

BLADE: Was your first trip to Fire Island as a performer or as a vacationing guest?

CHO: Every trip I’ve made there was as a performer and then I stayed for vacation. So, I made it work and pleasure, both at the same time. I’ve been going there since 2008. I love spending time there and just hanging out. I’m actually more of a Provincetown lady. I’ve been going to Provincetown since the 1980s to work and perform and just hang out. These are very much important areas for me. It’s the gay beach life that I really love.

BLADE: You mentioned Andrew Ahn, the gay filmmaker who directed “Fire Island,” and he also directed the lauded 2019 film “Driveways.” Is he a director you could see yourself working with again?

CHO: Absolutely! I love Andrew. I think he’s quite an incredible director. Not only is he so great with actors…the way that he creates films is so visually stunning and they’re so emotionally rich. I really admire him and his vision as an auteur. I would love to work with him again.

BLADE: You were one of the performers in the line-up for the LGBTQ comedy show “Stand Out,” which was part of Netflix is a Joke: The Festival. Stand-up comedy has received increased attention with Jerrod Carmichael coming out as gay in his HBO Max comedy special “Rothaniel,” as well as the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special. As a performer whose roots are in stand-up comedy, do you think there’s the possibility of healing?

CHO: Yes, I think so. We need to hear from LGBTQIA voices in comedy. I think that queer comedy has always been a part of the larger comedy world. We’ve always had a very strong presence within comedy. I see so many more of us participating and out there in this conversation. I was glad to be part of the festival and I’m so grateful to be part of the queer comedy community.

BLADE: Finally, I live in Fort Lauderdale, and I noticed that Florida is not on your tour schedule. I know that I’ve seen you perform in West Palm Beach, Miami, and, more recently, in Fort Lauderdale. With the political climate being what it is under the current governor, do you foresee performing here at any point in the near future?

CHO: Yes, definitely. I think it’s important to be out there. I was actually just there a few weeks ago, so. I think that we need to be constantly out there and we definitely need to be heard. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be returning again soon. 

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