For straight teens to resonate with TV or film when growing up, they need look no further than the kissing-in-the-rain scenes that play out in the bucketload – from teen films like 10 Things I Hate About You and The Notebook, to TV shows like Hollyoaks and Skins. But for queer teens, media visibility isn’t quite as prevalent. Attitudes may be shifting, but we’re not even close. With so many young, queer people growing up having not seen a same-sex relationship (non-tokenistic, that is) in a mainstream film, or a trans woman playing the lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster, is there any wonder kids are growing up confused and scared?
The bleak reality for so many queer kids is, unfortunately, a lack of a role model and a lack of connection to anything they can place themselves in within the mainstream. Someone who knows this story all too well is Amelia Abraham, journalist and author of the recently released Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture. Drawing on her experiences as a lesbian woman while challenging the notions of what being queer means in a world that’s ever-so-slowly embracing same-sex marriage and improved media visibility, she asks the big questions; who is being left behind, and what is the cost of acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community? While corporations are jumping ship (Pride-branded Listerine mouthwash, anyone?), there’s still a long way to go, as evident in the recent horrific homophobic attacks on a London night bus.
With Pride Month well and truly underway, Abraham has curated a list of 13 queer films to celebrate the talent, creativity and vision of a world so often appropriated and underrepresented. Featuring the likes of John Waters, Sean Baker and Gregg Araki, this is your definitive guide to the best of queer film throughout history. For the queer kids having not yet seen themselves in a film, this one’s for you.
120 BPM BY ROBIN CAMPILLO
“I’ll start with the best film I’ve seen in the last year. When I first watched this in the cinema, I had been out for about three days and was feeling very hollow; it brought me back to life, then swiftly turned me into an emotional wreck. It is a fictionalised look at AIDS organisation ACT UP Paris in the ’90s and seems to perfectly capture what being a member offered: a tight community, a reason to stay alive, a political outlet for intense anger. It’s also a really interesting look at risky sex and how the virus made people act like tonight was their last night on earth – because it could have been. You come away from watching 120BPM really feeling this sense of urgency.”
WATER LILIES BY CELINE SCIAMMA
”I think this is the perfect queer coming of age film. Water Lilies is set over a lazy summer in suburban France and tells the story of Marie, a young girl who joins a synchronised swimming team and gets a crush on Floriane, an older girl there. French filmmaker Celine Sciamma is so good at observing the complicated stories of young LGBTQ+ people in a sensitive and non-sensationalist or overly-sexualised way. This is her first film, but it’s a lot like her second, Tomboy – they both look beautifully crisp, clean, minimal and elegant – true French style!”
VITO BY JEFFREY SCHWARTZ
“There are many powerful and heartbreaking documentaries that exist on the breakout of the AIDS crisis and the subsequent political movements that formed, particularly in New York, like United In Anger and Surviving a Plague. The film Vito is lesser known but absolutely amazing. It follows the life of the unstoppable gay rights campaigner Vito Russo, who was also an expert in LGBTQ+ cinema and wrote the canonical book The Celluloid Closet, an early dive into the importance of positive on-screen representation. Vito co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and became a crucial member of ACT UP before he died from AIDS-related illness in 1990. Jeffrey Schwartz’ film is such a beautiful homage to his life.”
MILK BY GUS VAN SANT
“It’s annoying when straight actors play gay people let alone gay heroes but Sean Penn is so good in this biopic of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the US. The film is really absorbing and watching it gives you a good glimpse into what 1970s San Francisco might have been like, plus the conversations that were happening at the time within the gay rights movement. The script is so good it won Dustin Lance Black an Oscar.”
XXY BY LUCIA PUENZO
“A strange, slow, Argentine film by Lucía Puenzo about a 15-year-old girl called Alex who was born with both male and female sexual organs as she begins to explore her sexuality when family friends come to visit, forming a relationship with 16-year-old Alvaro. Set on the Uruguayan shore, the colour palette is really pared down and cold, a bit like the dialogue, but it somehow sucks you totally into Alex’s psyche. There aren’t loads of films about people who are intersex, so XXY was and still is filling a void, and it does a really good job of it.”
FEMALE TROUBLE BY JOHN WATERS
“One of my favourite films of all time, let alone one of John Waters’. Female Trouble is a chaotic and absurd faux-biopic one girl, played by the infamous drag queen Divine. That girl is Dawn Davenport, who after she doesn’t receive her desired ChaCha Heels for Christmas, attacks her family, runs away from home, gets pregnant, and enters a life of crime. Because crime is beauty! (Shout out to Jean Genet). Made on a shoestring budget, it is – like almost all of John Water’s films, pure trash, fucking insane, brilliantly hilarious and a little bit sick. So genius.”
WILDNESS BY WU TSANG
“The artist Wu Tsang made this profound documentary about The Silver Platter, a Los Angeles bar that mostly catered to the Latin immigrant community, and what happened when Wu and friends moved a new performance art night into the space. It’s a film about gentrification, erasure, relative privilege, assimilation, discrimination, hedonism, safe spaces, activism community, class and cultural production, and how all of these things can both compliment one another and be in conflict. When I first saw it, it blew me away; there’s a touch of magical realism that really elevates it to a very spiritual and special place – for instance, the bar itself has a consciousness, provided in voiceover from a Guatemalan trans actor. It’s really unique.”
SAFE BY TODD HAYNES
“Long before lesbian epic Carol, Todd Haynes made some quite bizarre and brilliant films, like this one, with my one true crush Julianne Moore, about a housewife who comes down with a mysterious disease and is exiled to a weird new age recovery centre. A kind of take on Sartre’s Nausea, but set in modern LA, it was also a comment on alienation and the AIDS crisis, and part of a wave of excellent indie films dubbed New Queer Cinema by the critic B. Ruby Rich.”
TANGERINE BY SEAN BAKER
“I really like the films Dallas Buyers Club and Boys Don’t Cry, but as with gay protagonists, it’s frustrating for trans characters to constantly be played by cis actors. Especially when films like Tangerine prove that trans actors can tell their own stories and still make a film a critical success. Sean Baker – of The Florida Project fame – directed Tangerine, which is shot on an iPhone cinéma vérité style and follows the story of two trans sex workers on a revenge mission.”
MULHOLLAND DRIVE BY DAVID LYNCH
“So sexy and intriguing! But the first time I watched it I was stoned and it freaked me out so I didn’t go back to it for years, and actually only watched it quite recently to find myself annoyed I had been missing out for so long on what is a very good film. What could possibly be better than a typically dark, eerie and convoluted David Lynch film with a central lesbian plot line? Nothing.”
MYSTERIOUS SKIN BY GREGG ARAKI
“Gregg Araki is an incredible pulpy queer cult director (who just co-created a TV show called Now Apocalypse with Karley Sciortino). I think Mysterious Skin is one of his best films but it’s quite stylistically different to a lot of the rest like Totally F*cked Up, Nowhere and The Living End – which all have quite a similar vibe; punchy, poppy and with a focus on radical young queers. Those films were all made in the ’90s, but Mysterious Skin was made in 2004. It’s about two young boys, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Brady Corbett, one of whom grows up to be a hustler and the other a UFO obsessive, and how their lives converge around past trauma.”
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT BY STEPHAN ELLIOT
“A camp classic! I watched this over and over when I was a kid. It’s just perfectly silly; the bawdy old school drag queen humour, the outfits, that iconic scene where Guy Pierce as Felicia does a lip sync to a song from Madame Butterfly on the top of a giant high heeled shoe on the roof of the bus in the middle of the Australian desert. If this is making no sense, just go and watch the film. It hasn’t aged that well, to be honest, particularly given how much drag has evolved, but it’s still super fun, and a testament to what drag once was.”
THE HANDMAIDEN BY PARK CHAN-WOOK
“This film is so, so good! I guess I would describe it as a fucked up love story between an orphaned Korean pickpocket, a conman and a young Japanese woman from a wealthy family. But that undersells it and ignores the painstakingly beautiful detail of the cinematography. It’s based on the Sarah Waters book The Fingersmith, set in Victorian Britain, but Park Chan-Wook transposes the story into another place and time entirely: 1930s Colonial era Korea and Japan. Full of mind games, great lesbian sex scenes, and totally deviant characters, it is a must watch.”
Amelia Abraham’s book Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture is available to purchase here.