Outfest 2020: The 5 best LGBTQ+ films we watched (from ‘Shiva Baby’ to ‘Cured’)

Just because it isn’t Pride Month doesn’t mean it’s time to stop talking about queer people – and this year’s LGBTQ film festival Outfest is here to remind you.

Films about the LGBTQ+ community often begin and end with a character’s “coming out” process. But the queer community’s dreams, struggles, hopes and heartbreaks reach far beyond this narrative. The dramas, comedies and documentaries that streamed at the just-ended Outfest paint the queer community as the mosaic the world should always see: full of different races, sexual orientations and gender identities, but also from different corners of the country and world with stories to tell both directly involving and beyond their queerness.

The festival pivoted to streaming this year, given the pandemic, though some films scored drive-in screenings. You can peruse the festival’s complete offerings here

Here’s a look at some of our favorites from the virtual festival: 

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‘Shiva Baby’

Anyone who’s been to a Jewish family gathering will immediately feel uncomfortably at home watching “Shiva Baby” – our favorite of Outfest and winner of the festival’s U.S. Narrative Jury Prize for best screenplay. “Shiva” is the period of mourning after a Jewish burial, typically involving (way too much) eating and mingling at the home of a relative of the deceased, in an effort to comfort the bereaved. 

Anyone who’s been to a Jewish family gathering will immediately feel uncomfortably at home watching "Shiva Baby." Rachel Sennott stars.

While shivas are typically awkward family and community reunions, this one is more awkward than most. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attends with her parents but manages to run into not only her ex-girlfriend, but also the sugar daddy she lied to about needing money for law school – as well as his wife (Dianna Agron, “Glee”) and baby daughter, whom Danielle knew nothing about.

Danielle tries to keep all her secrets intact, and one can’t help but empathize with the flustered 20-something who doesn’t know what she wants to do in life as all her worst fears literally crowd her. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the film, though some one-liners cater to a Jewish audience (one character pronounces the dessert “rugelach” as arugula, for example).

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‘Two Eyes’

Queerness, acceptance and tragedy transcend generations in “Two Eyes,” a stunning patchwork of queer stories ranging from the 1868 through today. Think “This Is Us” meets “Brokeback Mountain.”

Dihlon (Benjamin Rigby) and Jacy (Kiowa Gordon) star in "Two Eyes."

Those stories include an artist seeking inspiration in Montana, exploring with his Native American guide; a questioning teenager in California swept off their feet by a foreign exchange student; and a non-binary therapist trying to help a transgender teen in Wyoming.

One exchange between the artist and his guide encapsulates the true message of the film, as the guide tries to explain how another character identifies. They are “both man and woman,” the guide tells the artist. “That’s quite confusing,” the artist says back. The guide’s firm answer reminds us all that, “No, it’s not.”

Important:How trans ‘Harry Potter’ fans are grappling with J.K. Rowling’s legacy after her transphobic comments

‘Cicada’

Cicadas are the insects that only rear their large heads – and loud noises – every 13 to 17 years. In the case of the drama “Cicada,” the bugs make the perfect metaphor for unresolved childhood trauma and secrets. Directed by Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare, the film explores the relationship between millennials Ben (Fifer) and Sam (Sheldon Brown), two men who struggle with intimacy for different reasons: Ben was molested as a child, and Sam has yet to come out to his father. The film effectively shows what it’s like to hold onto trauma and how easy it is to let it fester.

"Cicada" explores the relationship between millennials Ben (Matthew Fifer, right) and Sam (Sheldon Brown, sitting, left), two men who struggle with intimacy.

It’s an intimate film that feels tailor-made for the coronavirus pandemic; many scenes feature the couple alone nestled in bed, playing basketball or spending time on a rooftop.

The final few minutes kept us on the edge of our seat (er, bed) – and though somewhat unsatisfied, we left hopeful that healing will come for both men. 

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‘The Obituary of Tunde Johnson’

In an unfortunate twist on “Groundhog Day,” Black gay teenager Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver of “13 Reasons Why”) wakes up on the same day over and over again, only to repeatedly die from police violence in “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson.”

Black gay teenager Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver) wakes up on the same day over and over again only to repeatedly die from police violence in "The Obituary of Tunde Johnson."

The movie follows Tunde as he makes adjustments to his day, in an effort to change his outcome, whether it’s coming out to his parents solo or with his secret boyfriend in tow; whether he makes it to said boyfriend’s party without getting pulled over by the police; whether he’s able to tell his best friend that he’s been sleeping with the same guy she is. The conceit works effectively. No matter what Black people do in this country, police remain a deadly threat.

One line that stuck out: “I’m Black and gay and even those two hate each other, which means in the eyes of humanity, I’m two degrees off-human,” Tunde tells his therapist. It’s hard to blame him for thinking that’s the case. 

Did you see? Justice Smith calls for Black queer and trans representation in protests, comes out as queer

‘Cured’

The striking documentary “Cured” details the struggles leading up to the American Psychiatric Association’s decision in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. The treatment of the gay community then stands in stark contrast to this summer’s Supreme Court decision that made it illegal to fire queer and transgender people because of their sexual orientation.

Demonstrators gathered in Albany, New York, in 1971 to demand gay rights and to declare that "Homo Is Healthy" in "Cured."

Not too many decades ago, gay people faced shock therapy, lobotomies and castration in an effort to be “cured.” The efforts of activists and brave members of the psychiatric profession were a spark (post-Stonewall) that helped light the fire that is LGBTQ rights in America today. 

Take a deep breath and realize how far America and parts of the world have come. Remember, however, that LGBTQ acceptance is far from universal and many still consider queerness a disease.

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