Highlights from BFI Flare 2017

30 Mar 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

10 mins
BFI Flare 2017
BFI Flare 2017

BFI Flare, the British Film Institute's annual celebration of LGBT cinema, took place this year between 16 - 26 March, and as ever, the films shown were diverse, challenging and emotionally powerful. In the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, the festival feels as important now as ever, giving visibility to stories and filmmakers still on the margins of cinematic culture. 

Following Moonlight's surprise Best Picture win at the Oscars®, many believe that LGBT stories will now gain an increased visibility. This will make the presence of festivals like Flare all the more crucial - celebrating filmmakers within the mainstream but also encouraging audiences to seek out something alternative to what is on in their local multiplexes.

We went along to this year's Flare with Joe, one of our young reporters, joining us to explore some of the films on offer. Many titles focused on the experiences of children and young people in fresh, dynamic ways, but also moved beyond the rather insular naval gazing that can dominate adolescent dramas, rather creating complex worlds of three-dimensional characters with their own perspectives, troubles and insights.

Below, our Film Programmer Joe Ursell picks out some of his highlights, but you can also skip to the reviews by our young reporter Joe.

Centre of my World 

This sensitive, idiosyncratic German coming-of-age story focuses on Phil, a vulnerable 17-year old who returns to his small hometown from summer camp to discover a wreckage brought about by a local storm and unusual tensions between his mother and sister. At school, new-boy Nicholas quickly steals Phil's heart and the pair begin a passionate romance, testing the bond Phil has with his best-friend Kat in the process. Adapted from a young adult novel, the film deals intriguingly and honestly with the complexities of teenage infatuations, as well as disruptions to the family unit and how events in the past can come to haunt our closest relationships. As the narrative progresses, we see Phil mature and become wiser, gaining the confidence to realise that the centre of his world may not revolve around the boy next door after all.

Miles

Centre of my World and American indie Miles are both notable for focusing on gay teenagers who are already out. Whilst coming out remains a key part of many LGBT films - and is of course a defining fixture in many young peoples lives - it is encouraging to see more filmmakers telling stories in which the young protagonist just happens to be gay. In Miles, the title character discovers that his college fund has been spent by his late father on a car for a woman he was having an affair with. Desperate to escape the claustrophobia of his small town for the liberation of film school, Miles enlists in the volleyball team to try and get a lucrative scholarship. Unfortunately, the school has no boys team, so he instead decides to enlist with the girls. Local controversy follows, and Miles finds himself battling prejudice and scorn in order to get his shot.

One of the touching elements of the story is the comfort and support the somewhat a isolated Miles finds in talking to other gay teenagers in internet chat rooms. The film also spends time compassionately but honestly dealing with how Miles' mother copes with the disruptions to her own life.

Signature Move 

Romantic comedy Signature Move also stood out for its sensitive depiction of motherhood. Zaynab is a Muslim immigration lawyer living in Chicago with her mother Parveen, who is largely housebound and confined to watching endless Pakistani soap operas on TV. She is also desperate for Zaynab to settle down with a husband. Seemingly happy living a semi-closeted life, Zaynab's perspective changes when she meets and falls in love with a Mexican woman named Alma. The pair grapple with when and how to tell Parveen about their relationship in this warm, funny, but compassionate look at cultural differences. Never reducing any perspective to mockery or caricature, the film uses broad cinematic tropes to tell a progressive story, celebrating how no individual's path through life is better than any other's - people simply make different choices.

Handsome Devil 

16-year old Ned finds himself rather isolated in his rugby-obsessed Irish boarding school, being more interested in his music than the laddish culture that the school fosters. When new roommate Conor arrives, having left his previous school in mysterious circumstances, they seem a match made in hell - especially when the brooding Conor quickly establishes himself as a superstar on the rugby field. But appearances can be deceiving, and before long, the pair have developed a deep and meaningful friendship. With a fantastic turn from Andrew Scott as a stern-but-inspiring English teacher with secrets of his own, this is a brilliant, crowd-pleasing comedy drama with lessons for all young people about learning to stand up for yourself and speaking with your own voice.

Being 17 

Celine Schiamma has shown a remarkable understanding of adolescent experience in her previous work, most notably in coming-of-age drama Girlhood. Her dialogue actually reflects the words spoken by young people, rather than something scripted by somebody much older. This empathy continues in Being 17, for which she wrote the screenplay. Set in a rural community over a school year, the film sees a boy named Damien living with his mother while his father is on a tour of duty abroad. He is being bullied by Thomas, a local farm-boy whose adopted mother is gravely ill. When Damien's mother invites Thomas to live with them, the boys' antagonistic relationship becomes increasingly tense and violent. However, it gradually becomes apparent that these expressions may be masking more complicated emotions around longing and desire. As in her earlier film Tomboy, Schiamma makes no judgements about her young characters' futures, focusing instead on the present, in a film of astonishing power, beauty and raw emotion. 

Five Films 4 Freedom

Flare also contains a rich selection of short films. Over recent years, an online collaboration has been established with the British Council, and this year's selection - entitled Five Films 4 Freedom - were all UK produced. Find out more about them below.

  • Jamie told the story of a shy teenager tentatively meeting up with an older guy he's been chatting to on his phone - an encounter that allows him to open up and express his emotions in ways he previously felt unable to do. 
  • Heavy Weight is set in the hyper-macho world of an East London boxing gym, where two young fighters find themselves violently struggling to repress their feelings toward one another. 
  • Crush tells a simple-but-moving story of a young teenage girl developing an infatuation with a young woman across the platform at a train station, and trying to summon up the courage to talk to her. 
  • Still Burning takes inspiration from iconic documentary Paris Is Burning to drop in on the lives of two brothers from the Caribbean, learning to express themselves within the Parisian vogueing community.
  • Where Are We Now is a Scottish documentary about the relationship between a trans woman and her young bisexual daughter, movingly documenting how the process of transitioning allowed the pair to become closer and to finally get to know one another.

Young Reporter Joe's BFI Flare reviews

Signature Move

This is very much a response film; a tale of Muslims, women, Mexicans, lesbians, wrestlers and immigrants in Chicago. It takes very little imagination to draw the line between the story and the present political climate in the United States. However, at no point does Signature Move make any attempts at preaching or criticism. Rather, we are merely presented with three characters in the pursuit of happiness and companionship. The overwhelming affability of each of these people provides the movie's true strength; an audience member cannot help but understand the difficulties and challenges that all three of them face and truly get behind them in their struggles.

The story centres around Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza), the only daughter of a widowed Pakistani Muslim immigrant to the USA. As the story unfolds, we follow her relationship with her conservative mother, preoccupied only by daytime TV and finding a suitable husband for her daughter as well as Zaynab's passionate relationship with the bright and beautiful Alma, a Mexican bookstore owner. These two figures present the protagonist with totally different, seemingly incompatible lifestyles and it is between these two lives that she must forge her identity.

While Signature Moves wont be winning any awards for the merit of its dialogue or cinematography, the movie still manages to successfully capture its environment in all of its vibrancy. From the opening montage, the film creates a portrait of Chicago that is bright and kinetic, bursting at the seams with colour and music. 

Aside from the solid, relationship driven core of the movie, Signature Move's subplot, involving Zaynab's efforts as an amateur wrestler is thoughtful and well executed resulting in a degree of fun and entertainment that makes it difficult to wipe the grin from your face. Watching our petite, slightly built protagonist training with her immensely powerful 'ex-pro' coach is hilarious, whilst her eventual actual bouts within the ring, in full mask and costume in front of impassioned crowds is nothing short of hysterical. But once again, it is the ability of director Jennifer Reeder to cause her audience to side with, and truly feel for the main character, that makes the film work. Love trumps hate!

Miles

Set in the late 90s in small-town Illinois, this heavily autobiographical coming-of-age film centres upon eponymous 'out and proud', film loving high schooler Miles whose ambitions for his future are cast into jeopardy following a family tragedy. With his hopes of escaping the mundanity of life in his hometown dashed, Miles resolves to pursue getting college education by any means necessary: even a volleyball scholarship.

From the start and throughout, it is Molly Shannons performance as Miles' mother that provides the broadest width of emotion. Shannon's skilful work creates the film's funniest scenes of awkward humour as well as the most touching and effecting moments of pathos and maternal fondness. She manages to jump between tragedy, comedy, joy and grief with seamless ease, resulting in a touching performance that really is the driving force of the film.

Newcomer Tim Boardman's performance as the main character is also commendable, he manages to achieve a sense of realism and likeability in the role, unfortunately, the opportunity to develop the character any further than this was not seized, mainly due to issues stemming back to script and structure. The fact that Miles is gay is given very little weight within the film, rather it is treated as a small plot point necessary only to the online friendships he strikes up with other guys. This is not a problem in itself, however, the central narrative of the scholarship doesn't quite feel compelling enough to serve as the mainstay of the film. With such intriguing and complicated characters and situations featuring in the film, it does feel as though director Nathan Adloff could have achieved a more gripping narrative had he realigned the focus of the story slightly.

That being said, Miles does still succeed in being a thoroughly enjoyable watch. It is a touching story of persistence in adversity and strikes an excellent balance between humour and dejection. 

Being 17

A film that from the off establishes its central thesis as 'opposites attract', Being 17 is a wonderfully astute study of contrasts. The film directs its focus at the walls that stand between masculinity and sensitivity, violence and tenderness, loss and discovery, and then violently rips them down.

Set over the course of an academic year in the foothills of The Pyrenees, Being 17 is the story of Damien, an intelligent, if, misunderstood adolescent and Thomas, the biracial adoptive son of a farming couple. The characters attend the same school, where they take an instant and intense disdain for one another that soon escalates to violence. However, at the mercy of unforeseen circumstances Thomas and Damien are forced together by the actions of their mothers. Lead actors Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila both weigh in with impressive turns as the two teenagers, each possessing a raw vulnerability and a measured passion that illuminates the screen throughout.

Spending time in each other's company seems, to begin with, to be no remedy for their mutual contempt, rather, as they spend more time together they have physical fights routinely, almost prearranged at times, culminating in a brutal brawl atop a nearby summit. These bouts delve into the captivating and seldom explored fusion of bullish masculinity and gentle tenderness. Téchiné's execution of these moments possesses a rare deftness of touch that genuinely leaves an audience questioning what they are seeing on the screen, forming conclusions only to have them wiped away, and then hinted at afresh. As time passes, the space that they have put between themselves starts to narrow, birthing a touching intimacy that they both struggle to make sense of.

Throughout the picture, the photography is totally in accord with the characters and their respective emotional turmoil. Whether the shaky handheld work as the pair tussle physically or the distant wides of Thomas traversing the expansive snowy mountains to get to school, the camerawork is married perfectly to story and character throughout. In addition, the evolution of the seasons that gradually occurs over the course of the film acts as a marvellous visual metaphor for the growing bond between the pair. The impassable, isolating snows of winter slowly give way to the warmer and more hospitable climate of spring and summer, serving as a precise manifestation of the internal mellowing of both characters. 

Dealing with a tremendous multitude of complex and deep-rooted emotions with gripping authenticity and a refreshing vulnerability, Being 17 is an unmissable drama. 

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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