The Mattachine Family Tells The Story Of A Very Specific Type Of Family

This “The Mattachine Family” review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, movies like this one would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work. This review contains spoilers.

Outfest took place in Los Angeles between July 13 and Jul 23. Sa’iyda Shabazz and Drew Gregory have brought you all kinds of reviews. If you’re interested in viewing many of these films, Outfits is also presenting them virtually until July 30th

Found family is such a fundamental part of queer culture, it’s not surprising when it becomes the heart of queer TV and movies. It’s how so many of us find our community and the people who support and love us no matter what.

I heard about the film The Mattachine Family a couple of years ago when Emily Hampshire posted about it on her Instagram. When it was announced as one of the films screening at Outfest, I added it to my list pretty immediately. I was so curious about this movie that promised to tell a story about found family and the ties that bind them together.

Directed by Andy Vallentine and written by Danny Vallentine, the movie revolves around Thomas (Nico Tortorella), a gay man who lives in Los Angeles with his husband Oscar (Juan Pablo Di Pace). When the film starts, the couple is dealing with their foster son being returned to his mother. Oscar throws himself into his work as an actor, while Thomas, a photographer, leans on his friends, many of whom are queer women, including Emily Hampshire and Heather Matarazzo. And as much as I enjoyed the movie, I will say that I found the female characters incredibly reductive and one dimensional. And given the fact that this is a wholly queer film, it was really disheartening to see.

After his foster son is returned,  Thomas goes to a housewarming party at the home of his friend Leah (Emily Hampshire) and her wife Sonia (Cloie Wyatt Taylor). After giving Leah a weird sculpture he described as “phallic,” we see Thomas talking to two other female guests. One of the women explains that Thomas was the photographer for her first and third weddings, insinuating that her second wife was arrested for an unknown reason before excusing herself to pump her breasts before they begin to “leak.” Next we meet Annie (Heather Matarazzo), a lesbian mom influencer. When he asks what she does, she simply replies, “I’m a mommy!” all wide-eyed and with this tone that I can only describe as influencer lite. She goes on to tell him all about her brand deal selling ankle weights for babies (“they’re HUGE in Korea,” she explains) while pouring herself a giant glass of wine. It’s like one stereotype after another packed into five minutes of dialogue.

I am a mother. If you’re a regular reader of Autostraddle, you know that I write a column about just that! And it is as a mother that I will say that the way The Mattachine Family portrays mothers is as flat caricatures. Annie is every single stereotype of a mom influencer in LA. That’s not to say women like her don’t exist, but as a person who knows a lot of queer mom influencers (including ones that live in LA), she has no heart. From the weird way she talks to the way she almost drains her wine glass in one sip, I rolled my eyes so hard. Ankle weights for babies? Seriously?? Can LA mom influencers be fucking vapid and uninteresting? Absolutely! But I also think that queer mom influencers have a lot more depth. Annie has a son, Huck, who she co-parents with Ted (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), her gay best friend. We find out later that they live together, but live separate romantic lives. Ted explains this to Thomas, sharing that they can make their own rules.

I would have loved more of a conversation with the two of them revolving around what it means to co-parent that way and how so many queer people are redefining what family means and how they get to make a family.

A collection of queer people in formal wear walk hand in hand on a beach during a cloudy day, they are of different genders and races.

Now, let’s talk about Leah and Sonia. Leah is Thomas’s best friend since college, and his voice of reason. Her character is juxtaposed with Thomas’ gay male best friend, and it’s kind of amazing to see the gay best friend trope play out in a movie where the main character is also a gay man. Leah’s entire storyline revolves around her inability to get pregnant. We don’t know what she does for a living, her age, nothing. All we know is that she coughs in the middle of the night and is going through IVF. It’s not going well. Oh, and Sonia won’t let her have dairy because she read that it could affect fertility. So she spends a lot of the movie whining about needing cough drops and wishing for cake frosting.

We do get to know that Sonia is a baker, and that she’s trying to open a storefront, so the couple is bleeding money between that and spending money on fertility treatments. Sonia is only there to support Leah and make everyone feel better with baked goods. It feels especially reductive because she’s Black. We also get the story of their proposal — when Sonia asked Leah to marry her, she repeated “Be with me” three times like a mantra. It does sound beautiful, not going to lie. I would have loved to know more about them, even if it was through the lens of their fertility journey and the choices they made around that.

Like I said, Leah’s sole purpose for existing is to be Thomas’ voice of reason. She’s an awesome best friend, being with him at the final foster court hearing, holding him while he cries. But I wanted to know so much more about her, and not just through the lens of what was happening to her. Hampshire does get a few minutes to shine when Leah has a miscarriage and she locks herself in her bedroom. She ribs Thomas for not bringing her “miscarriage flowers,” not even “sad supermarket flowers.” He asks if that’s really what she wanted. “I want a baby,” she cries. It feels like that sentence encapsulates her entire character.

Leah’s fertility journey isn’t something I can relate to, I’ll be fully honest. I understand how much getting pregnant becomes front of mind for people going through the process, but I can’t help but think that there’s still so much more to her than that. Why does she want to be a mother so badly? What will her life be like if she does become pregnant? Who will she be if she can’t have a child? Reducing Leah to her desire for a child leaves out a lot of beautiful character development.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I would prefer there be no lesbians in The Mattachine Family if they’re only going to exist as stereotypes. It’s 2023, you can’t tell me that the director and writer didn’t know that jokes about being divorced multiple times and bringing out the power tools would be hurtful. The use of the word “Mattachine” is excluding women. I understand where it comes from — the characters live in the Silverlake neighborhood of LA, and visit The Mattachine steps, the place where Harry Hay founded The Mattachine Society in the 1950. But The Mattachine Society was a group for men. It feels like they added women characters so that people couldn’t say the gay male writer doesn’t like women, not because he really believes the characters add value to the story.

Even the straight women characters are reduced to the butt of a joke: the woman social worker has a Ricky Martin poster, prompting a joke about her having “a thing for gay dads.” And the bio mom of the foster son delivers an antagonistic monologue about being her son’s real parent without the nuance of being a Latina whose kid was in the system and how she was going to have to fight for her humanity at every turn.

I do want to say that I absolutely LOVED Nico Tortorella as Thomas. They acted the hell out of the role. Thomas could have read as a little flat, but goodness, Tortorella imbues the character with their whole heart. You can see that this is a character who is really going on an emotional journey, and Tortorella found those moments to infuse this immense amount of empathy into him, while also playing a quiet strength and determination. The love they pour into Thomas’ quest to be a parent is beautiful. The movie was filmed before they became a parent in real life, but if they parent halfway as good as they acted, that kiddo is really fricking lucky.

I enjoyed The Mattachine Family as a whole. It’s a very sweet movie about a man who is figuring out who he is and how he fits into the world. But it’s also very much how a white, cis gay man fits into the world (even though the actor playing him in nonbinary!). And that’s fine, but it’s not the movie I thought I was signing up for. I thought that the idea of found family and the ways your friends become your family, especially for queer people would play a bigger part of the story, but I found it pretty traditional in its viewpoint. It’s less about redefining family, and more about how we all have our own journey to parenthood, emotionally and literally.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 122 articles for us.

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