For the first time ever, Autostraddle is at Sundance (at least virtually)! Drew Gregory is coming to you daily for the next week with all the LGBTQ+ movies and panels you’ve always wished you had access to from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Follow her on Twitter for more.
Sometimes the discourse around queer film and television exhausts me. I want every queer person to want more — to not settle for what we have — but I also feel like cis white queer women without disabilities don’t really get what it’s like for the rest of us. I sometimes feel like cis white queer women without disabilities don’t understand the difference between not getting enough and just not getting.
Since obsessing over queer media went from a hobby to a job, and especially since starting the years long process of watching every lesbian+ movie ever, I’ve been increasingly frustrated at the state of queer and trans disability representation. As a queer person without a disability, it doesn’t personally affect me as much as the lack of queer trans women representation, but I’ve seen parallels in how both are neglected in our cinema.
Well, what a thrill to start Sundance with a work that breaks this pattern — a work that once again shows that marginalized voices getting to tell our own stories is not just good politics but great art. We’re only one day in, but I feel confident saying that if you want to watch one piece of queer women media at this year’s festival it should be 4 Feet High.
Directed by María Belén Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, 4 Feet High follows Juana, a 17-year-old girl with blue hair who uses a wheelchair and is bursting with teenage horniness. Upon starting a new school, she befriends a group of queer student activists who are fighting for proper sex education. But while they push for classroom sex ed, Juana begins her own hands on education — to mixed results.
Juana is played by Marisol Agostina Irigoyen, a first-time actor you’d never believe was a first-time actor based on her charming on-camera ease and well of complicated emotions. During the post-screening Q&A, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, who herself uses a wheelchair, spoke about the importance of casting actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. She also noted how inaccessible in-person casting sessions create yet another difficulty for actors with disabilities. Marisol Agostina Irigoyen’s performance not only shows what’s possible when an actor can bring the authenticity of their experience to a part — but also the sheer acting talent our industry is choosing to neglect. The show is squarely in her POV and she carries it with an arresting charisma that can only be called star quality.
Throughout the series, Juana is eager to be treated like everyone else. She wants the same punishment when sent to the principal’s office, she wants the same messy first sexual experiences, she even wants her mom to worry about her being pregnant. She’s not just fighting to own her sexuality like her classmates without disabilities — she’s fighting against a world that keeps trying to desexualize her. In one of the series’ best moments, a guy without a disability that she’s flirting with calls her amazing. She bristles. It sounds too much like the woman who just gushed about how she’s an inspiration. She tells the guy not to say that and he asks why. “Because we don’t say those things to people we want to kiss.” He leans in. “You’re amazing,” he says again, this time with a clearer tone. And he kisses her.
The directors further let us into Juana’s POV by utilizing animation and heightened imaginative sequences inspired by Juana’s illustrations. Sometimes she is engulfed in flames of passion, other times she is suffocated with creeping foliage. There’s even a moment where two (probably gay) healthcare works dance in pink wigs. Juana has such a rich internal life and these touches create another layer of depth on top of a performance that already says it all.
4 Feet High was initially conceived as a VR experience and for those of you who have a VR headset there is a sister project in the festival that is a VR version of the series. They follow similar beats, but the VR series has a sequence with Juana and her friend Cami at a sex shop that is truly delightful. The idea of telling this story through VR may have originally been conceived — and was likely pitched to producers — as a way to give viewers without disabilities a feel for an experience with this particular disability. But the series is too sophisticated for something so simplistic and misguided. The VR experience ends up feeling less disability-specific and more like the opportunity to be dropped in the middle of a queer coming-of-age movie. It’s a pretty remarkable experience, especially as someone who has always wished there was a Disneyland for lesbian movies.
But even if you can’t experience this component — as I assume most people will not — 4 Feet High is still an expertly crafted, monumental work of queer media. It’s funny and sex positive, specific and beautiful. It’s a show about family and friendship, as much as it’s about sex and romance. It is capital F Feminist, capital P Political. It’s the story of one 17-year-old girl and the things she cares most about.
Like last year’s Alice Júnior — my favorite example of queer trans woman representation — 4 Feet High mostly focuses on its protagonist’s interest in men. But both works feel queer throughout and end in a moment of gay bliss and both are a giant step forward if still not enough. How can you watch this series and not feel angry with how deprived we are of stories about queer people with disabilities? How can you watch this series and not be delighted with what’s finally on-screen? How can you watch this series and not be excited about all of the possibilities fulfilled and all the possibilities still to come?
I’m not sure if VR is the future. But stories about queer people with disabilities definitely are. They better be.