Last night, the Brisbane Queer Film Festival launched its 2018 season – its nineteenth consecutive year – at New Farm Cinemas with Trudie Styler’s Freak Show. The film – which I’ll get to in a minute – was the perfect choice to inaugurate a festival emphasising weirdness, queerness and quiet revolution.
In the broader calendar of Brisbane cinematic events, BQFF has always felt a little overshadowed by its competitors. Maybe that’s reflective of a smaller queer community here compared to down south, but I’d tend to argue that many – not all! – of the festival’s previous programs haven’t felt, well…queer enough. Like any festival, there’s always been a mix of good, bad and mediocre films. In past years, however, BQFF’s choices have struck me as oddly conservative, even anachronistic. Obviously that’s been influenced by the size of the festival (and its concomitant budget), but amongst a sparkling line of jewels there’s always been a few dull notes: commonplace melodramas and romances with little to distinguish them beyond same-sex romances.
This year feels different. Perhaps you can credit that the recent independence of the festival, or a reinvigoration of international queer filmmaking. It’s not – to paraphrase Seinfeld – there’s anything wrong with ‘okay’ queer films that you’ll forget about in a week or two. As B. Ruby Rich puts it (half-jokingly), “why shouldn’t queer audiences be entitled to the same date-night mediocrity that heterosexuals can buy every Saturday at the multiplex?” There’s more than that on offer this year though, with the thrill of the countercultural running through retros like The Burning Ones and Witches, Faggots, Dykes and Poofters; and new films like Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, The Misandrists and the aforementioned Freak Show.
There’re still smaller, simpler queer films – like Brazilian working class romance Body Electric – for interested audiences, but there’s an international flavour, a sense that queer films need to do more nowadays. That’s as much a reflection of an evolution of the film festival as the evolution of wider society towards something microcosmically more inclusive.
As an example, G.B.F. – which I described at the time as a “queer Mean Girls” – played the 2014 BQFF but received no mainstream Australian release despite its accessibility. This year’s BQFF features Love, Simon – described in this week’s Riverdale as “a John-Hughes-ian coming-of-age coming-out story” – shortly before it receives a wide release in cinemas Australia-wide. I’m yet to see Love, Simon, but I think it speaks to the incremental cultural change we’ve seen over the last few years that of two very similar films, one was relegated to queer film festivals and the other is decidedly mainstream.
This shift reinforces the need for festivals like BQFF to step up to the plate to push more inclusivity, to present queerness as more than simplistic “Love is Love” slogans but rather as a broader rejection of repressive cultural norms. Which makes Freak Show a perfect choice for opening night. Based on ‘Club Kid’ James St James’ novel of the same name, the film stars the chameleonic Alex Lawther as Billy Bloom, a fabulously rich, fabulously weird and just plain fabulous teen drag queen. His migration to a conservative high school sees him violently clash with the prevailing culture (represented primarily by Abigail Breslin and her ‘God squad’) and – ultimately – run for homecoming queen in an up-yours to intolerance. Filled with left-field cameos – John McEnroe, Laverne Cox, fuckin’ Bette Midler – it’s a whole lot of fun.
If I put on my film critic hat, there are plenty of things to nitpick about Freak Show. The film embraces a campy, larger-than-life style that’s perfectly suited to the material, but on more than one occasion the dialogue is entirely too-cutesy (case in point: naming a character Felicia just to facilitate a tired “Bye Felicia” gag). Formally, it’s imperfect; veteran DOP Dante Spinotti weirdly incorporates mockumentary-esque digital zooms into an aesthetic that’s otherwise classical. And the film’s central relationship – between Billy and star quarterback Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson) – never comes across as believable (partly because of the writing, mostly because of Nelson’s performance). Freak Show also falls for the one sin that never fails to bother me; it aims for a modern-day setting, with smart phones and all, without any serious attempt to account for how teen culture has been transformed by social media.
I wasn’t really thinking about any of this while watching the film, though. What I was reminded of were my own late teen years, where I earned – and I mean earned – the moniker “Crazy Dave” through my outlandish antics. Turning up to school in a dressing gown on casual clothes today. Dancing in front of my peers at lunch clad only in leopard-skin boxer shorts. Attending my semi-formal in a 1980s neon-blue netball pennant jacket and a Power Ranger mask. Freak Show reminded me of my own freakish qualities, and how the standards of society had eroded them away in the ensuing years.
Like all great teen films, Freak Show understands that one’s teenage years are a time for experimentation with identity. Teen coming-of-age films aren’t about character arcs, but identity arcs, as we shed elements of ourselves as we reinforce others – often with layers of painful scar tissue. Billy Bloom’s ‘freakishness’ is located on a specific, familiar axis: queerness, old-fashioned drag, genderfuck. But Freak Show represents all the ways that we can – and should! – challenge the oppressive homogeneity, the boring hegemony that surrounds us. It reminds us of how weird we used to be and how weird we still could be. In short, it’s a perfect step forward for the BQFF, and I’m excited for the rest of the festival.
The Brisbane Queer Film Festival runs from March 8th to March 18th. Get your tickets at https://www.bqff.com.au/