What’s Queer at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival?

Next stop, Park City!

This year’s Sundance Film Festival unspools in Park City, Utah from January 24 to February 3. As always, the annual indie film showcase provides us with a glimpse of the queer film forecast for 2019. Below, to the best of my knowledge, are some of this year’s LGBTQ highlights. I’ve been writing these Sundance queer previews since 1997 and I’m here to tell you that identifying gay films based on festival catalog descriptions and the information provided by the festival press office is a unique art.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Every year the Sundance press office releases a list of films of LGBTQ-interest. It has been increasingly common in recent years though, that the catalog descriptions often refrain from describing exactly what the LGBTQ aspect of the film is (in fact these days it’s a rare case where the LGBTQ facet is explicitly mentioned). This is a longstanding point of contention in the indie film world. Filmmakers (and studio marketers) want their films to be seen by wide audiences and feel it is reasonable to resist being pigeonholed into niche categories. On the one hand this is understandable. On the other hand this approach can sometimes carry a faint scent of homophobia.

I’ve done as much deeper research as I can, but in most cases since these are all world premieres of the films, the LGBTQ content is not currently discernible from online sources. That said, Sundance says these are all of LGBTQ-interest and they should know!

The Sundance Institute has been working hard at diversifying festival films and filmmakers. To demonstrate their confidence in that commitment, this year they’re also offering transparency about that diversity. According to the festival press office: “Of the 61 directors of the 56 films playing across four competition categories, 42% are women; 39%, people of color; and 23%, people who identify as LGBTQ.”

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, the festival’s new director of programming Kim Yutani explains: “I’m always looking for the voices of people who are not part of the mainstream… So whether that be the women in our program, the people of color, LGBTQ voices, I think that these are all of real interest to me. And to be able to be in this position and to give those voices a platform is an honor.”

Both Yutani and Sundance Institute head John Cooper are former Outfest programmers and identify as LGBTQ.

Without further ado, below is the official list of LGBTQ interest titles (sorted by the section of the festival in which they appear) along with my investigative notes and observations on the amazing array of euphemisms being employed to avoid describing the films as LGBTQ. Expect to see most if not all of these at your local LGBTQ film festivals and/or in limited theatrical release over the next six to nine months.

  1. Now Apocalypse

    Starz

    U.S. (Director: Gregg Araki)

    In this new Starz series from Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin, Kaboom) a group of friends in Los Angeles navigates the pursuit of love, sex and fame. The official description of the show refrains from describing it as of gay-interest but utilizes all the familiar code words to indicate gay content: “this unique coming-of-age tale explores identity, sexuality…” It’s not 100% clear whether the lead character of Ulysses (played by Avan Jogia) is gay or bisexual but back in June, Deadline reported that Tyler Posey (Teen Wolf) had been cast as Ulysses’s love interest on the show: “Posey will play Gabriel, an incredibly charismatic and mysterious guy Ulysses matches with on a dating app. During their highly anticipated first date, they can hardly contain themselves.” The first three episodes of the series will be presented at Sundance.

    The show premieres on Starz on March 10.

  2. Before You Know It

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Director: Hannah Pearl Utt)

    Writer-director Hannah Pearl Utt and co-writer Jen Tullock costar as two co-dependent sisters who discover what the Sundance festival catalog describes as: “a long-kept family secret.” This could be something gay—hard to say. The actual LGBTQ content of this film, and so many others, shall remain a mystery until the reviews begin appearing during the festival. Judith Light co-stars.

  3. To the Stars

    Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW

    U.S. (Director: Martha Stephens)

    A 1960s coming of age tale about a farmer’s daughter and the reckless new girl with whom she “forges an intimate friendship” in a small town in Oklahoma. Yes, “intimate friendship” is another familiar code for gay content; my best guess is that they are lesbians.

  4. This Is Not Berlin

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Mexico (Director: Hari Sama)

    Xabiani Ponce de León stars as Carlos, a misfit teen in Mexico City in this moody 1980s period drama. Against the backdrop of the 1986 World Cup, Carlos discovers the underground club, Azteca — and, as the festival catalog characterizes it: “their exhilarating world of performance art, sexual fluidity, and prescription drugs.” Yes, “sexual fluidity” is definitely in our gay code dictionary. A bit of deeper investigation also turns up one of the film’s production stills which shows a young man with the word “GAY” painted in repetition all over his torso and face (presumably he’s one of the above-mentioned performance artists).

  5. Velvet Buzzsaw

    Netflix

    U.S. (Director and Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy)

    Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this wild art-world horror-thriller about the sinister paintings of a dead artist which seem to inflict disaster on the collectors and art-world professionals who engage with them. The film co-stars Rene Russo, Toni Collette, and Zawe Ashton and is set for a Netflix premiere on February 1. This is another film we have zero information about beyond the Sundance synopsis and official Netflix blurb—what the LGBTQ content may be is a complete mystery.

  6. Adam

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Director: Rhys Ernst)

    Yes! At last, a queer film on the queer film list! This debut feature from Transparent producer-director Rhys Ernst tells the tale of awkward teen Adam who spends the last summer of high school with his older sister in New York City navigating the city’s LGBTQ activist scene. A comedy of errors ensues when Adam falls for the beautiful Gillian, who mistakes Adam’s gender identity.

  7. Jawline

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Director: Liza Mandelup)

    The picture of this kid is worth a thousand words. Here’s the Sundance press office summary: “This film follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen-girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.” And yes, he has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram.

  8. Where’s My Roy Cohn?

    HBO/Sundance

    U.S. (Director: Matt Tyrnauer)

    Another actual gay film. Described as a “thriller-like exposé” this latest from the prolific gay doc maker Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) connects the dots between Joseph McCarthy’s villainous gay henchman and Donald J. Trump.

  9. Halston

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Director and screenwriter: Frédéric Tcheng)

    Combining interviews with those who knew him best (including his dear friend Liza Minnelli) with dramatized enactments of his rags-to-riches life, director Frederic Tcheng (Dior and I) tells the story of the legendary late gay designer. 2019 looks to be the Year of Halston as Killer Films recently announced the upcoming production of the limited series, Simply Halston starring Ewan MacGregor in the title role.

  10. Belle of the Ball

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Lead Artists: Ro Haber, Silas Howard, Pussykrew, Twiggy Pucci Garcon)

    Possibly the queerest thing in the festival on every level, this project is described as: “A VR journey into a futuristic reimagined utopia of queer + trans family and dance made in collaboration with members of New York’s ballroom scene.”

  11. The Hours and Times

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Director Christopher Munch)

    This period piece fictional dramatization of the relationship between John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein (who was gay) was one of the original films hailed by B. Ruby Rich as part of the New Queer Cinema (alongside Greg Araki’s The Living End and Tom Kalin’s Swoon). Newly restored by Sundance, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Oscilloscope Films.

  12. Delivery Girl

    Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

    U.S. (Director and Screenwriter: Kate Krieger)

    Okay, here’s the festival catalog blurb: “Trisha is a young woman struggling with her identity. She leads a double life within her fiercely Catholic household, selling drugs to make ends meet while carrying on with a secret lover.” Thankfully the production still for this one features a very nice lesbian kiss which tells us everything we need to know to be able to translate all those code words.

  13. Girls Weekend

    Andrew Chin/Getty Images

    U.S. (Director: Kyra Sedgwick, Creator: Ali Liebegott)

    Ali Liebegott (Transparent writer) wrote and stars in this series about a lesbian who grapples with her homophobic sister, people-pleasing mother and gun-toting dad while on a visit home to Las Vegas. Amy Landecker (Transparent) co-stars along with Linda Lavin (TV’s Alice) as the mom and Ken Jenkins (Scrubs) as the dad.

  14. Work In Progress

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    U.S. (Creators and screenwriters: Abby McEnany, Tim Mason)

    Improv comedian Abby McEnany stars as a 45 year-old dyke who falls in love with a millennial transman in this adaptation of her stage show, Work in Progress. Interestingly, in her Sundance online filmmaker interview McEnany actually expresses much of what I’ve outlined above, she very clearly articulates her objection to her show being categorized as LGBTQ.

    “I don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed as a queer comedy slash drama,” she says. “Hopefully we just take it as a human story, a love story, a coming-of-age story. The fact that a lot of the characters are queer and trans and non-binary and all that stuff is just a fact, as opposed to — being pigeonholed. I think that does a disservice to the show, I think it does a disservice to our community, to the queer community.”

So, there you have it. Call me a disservice to the queer community, but do keep an eye out for these films.

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF