Autostraddle is back at Sundance. Drew Burnett Gregory and Shelli Nicole are coming to you daily for the next week with LGBTQ+ movie reviews from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Follow Drew and Shelli on Twitter for more!
Two years ago a movie called CODA won Sundance. It went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Its title refers to someone like its protagonist, a child of deaf adults. It’s a movie about a hearing girl who wants to sing and it was celebrated as a landmark in deaf representation.
Hollywood and film industries around the world have long explored people and identities they view as “otherwp_poststhrough the “normalwp_postspeople who interact with them. You can see it in a Kenyan-based movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (another Best Picture winner), you can see it in shows like Orange is the New Black that use an expected protagonist as a way in to tell more diverse stories.
When it comes to LGBTQIA+ film and television, we have often been the side characters of our own stories. We’ve seen this occur again and again from classic tropes like the gay best friend to less talked about but still pervasive tropes like the poorly written trans women teaching a cis man about life.
This year at Sundance there are two romances that seem to continue in this tradition — one about a cis man and a trans woman and one about an allosexual woman and an asexual man. The former is about the cis man, the latter is about the allosexual woman. And yet, despite their choice in protagonists, they’re two of the most specific, well-crafted films at the festival.
When I first saw Joyland last year at TIFF, I went in filled with the suspicion I always have watching a trans film made by a cis director. What stereotypes would I be subjected to? What trauma would I be forced to witness? Or, worst of all, how flat and underwritten would this trans woman be?
Thankfully, my worries were assuaged — in part, because this is not a trans film.
Saim Sadiq’s debut feature is about a cis man named Haider (Ali Junejo) who gets a job as a backup dancer at a burlesque theatre. He keeps this a secret from his traditional patriarch of a father and from his progressive wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). His secrets increase when he falls for the lead dancer, a trans woman named Biba (Alina Khan).
This is not Biba’s film — it’s Haider’s and his family’s. But unlike other films that use a trans character in this way, there’s a feeling that Biba could be the lead of her own film. Even if we only get glimpses, a peak into her life through Haider, she’s a full human being. Haider may be using her as a symbol, an inspiration for his own desire for freedom, but the film is clear that she is more than that in the world.
Some of this is due to Alina Khan’s performance. Since it became more common for trans actors to be cast as trans characters, many performers have been the reason their characters resemble a person beyond the cis imagination. Biba is the star of her own show — literally — and when Khan is on-screen, she’s the star of this film. She’s alluring when seen as an object and grounded in the moments we get to see more.
And we do see more. This is not a film where the actor is the only positive aspect of the character. There’s a distance between the film’s perspective and the character, but it’s a respectful distance. It acknowledges Biba’s womanhood and her humanity beyond Haider’s exploration.
Joyland aims to deconstruct a multitude of confining gender norms in modern Pakistan. Biba is just one part of that exploration. This is a traumatic story, but Biba is not the recipient of that trauma. Sadiq, unlike so many cis filmmakers before him, is wise to let Biba live her life off-screen.
Marija Kavtaradze’s Slow takes a similar approach to its exploration of sexuality and gender. But while Biba was just one part of Joyland’s tableaux, this film almost has co-leads.
Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) is a professional dancer whose approach to dating has been exclusively one-night stands and situationships. She meets sign language interpreter Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) and there’s an immediate spark. Maybe this is the guy she’s been waiting for, maybe this is someone she could be serious with. Then Dovydas tells her that he’s asexual.
I’m not sure what the experience of watching this film will be like for someone who is ace. While much of the film is focused on the central relationship, the majority of the scenes where they’re not together are with Elena. We see her other relationships, we see her friendships, we see her dancing. Our moments alone with Dovydas are brief.
Elena is not a model of an allosexual partner to an asexual person. Her initial reaction is awkward and throughout their relationship she doesn’t seem to really accept Dovydas’ needs — or be able to communicate her own.
But Elena and Dovydas are in love. They have a chemistry that rivals the best on-screen romances. Spending time in that love, with these people, is a gift. They do communicate sometimes, they try. Both actors are exceptional and even better together. It results in a relationship that feels real. Painfully real.
Dovydas is not perfect. He has his own struggles in communicating his feelings. But even though Elena is the protagonist, and even though she doesn’t always respect his needs, the filmmaker does. When the two characters are on-screen together, the camera gives them equal weight. When Elena disappoints Dovydas, we feel that disappointment as our own. We feel a desire for her to change — not him.
There is an immense lack of stories about asexual people. There should be, and will be, more stories that have asexual protagonists, where the plot is not concerned with an allosexual person being taught asexuality 101. This is not that story. But it is a beautiful, romantic film about Elena and Dovydas, two people who love each other, two people who try.
Even though I myself am a hearing person, the success of CODA left me frustrated. Forty plus years after CODA co-star Marlee Matlin won an Oscar and twenty plus years after an independent masterpiece like Compensation, it seemed absurd to be told that CODA was an important stepping stone for deaf stories. There are deaf writers and directors who have their own stories to tell, who should be getting this funding, this praise. But the mainstream only likes marginalization on their own terms.
Joyland and Slow should have filled me with a similar frustration. They did not. Maybe it’s because they’re grounded art films from Pakistan and Lithuania rather than a mid-budget American crowd-pleaser. But I think it’s deeper than that.
The ignorance that Haider and Elena have is painful for Biba and Dovydas. They are our protagonists, but they are not our heroes. These films don’t suggest an air of confidence — an attitude that they are representing trans and asexual lives. They just do it. They create real characters and let them live in the world.
Every story can be told, if it’s told right. I want media that centers people that have long been ignored on-screen, but not every artist should tell those stories. There are other stories to tell with us that are not about us.
Joyland and Slow show the value of those other stories. They show how to do them right.