There are a handful of exciting, experimental, and visionary films screening in this year’s edition of New Directors/New Films. One highlight is the extraordinary trans romance “Joyland” (April 1, 12:30 pm Walter Reade Theater; April 2, 6:45 pm, MoMA Titus 2) being shown in advance of its theatrical release April 7. Another worthwhile entry is the gorgeous Chinese drama, “Absence” (April 2, 3:00 pm, Walter Reade Theater; April 3, 6:00 pm, MoMA Titus 2), about a man (Lee Kang-sheng) returning from a stint in prison and trying to reconnect with his his former girlfriend (Li Meng) and possible daughter.
Here is a rundown of a handful of queer-themed films to catch at this year’s festival.
The closing night entry, “Mutt” (April 8, 7:00 pm MoMA Titus 1; April 9, 7:00 pm Walter Reade Theater), is trans writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s sensitive, moody drama that depicts an emotional 24 hours in the life of Feña (Lîo Mehiel), a Latinx trans man in New York City. (Feña is a gender-neutral name in Chile.) While in a bar with friends, Feña spots his ex, John (out actor Cole Doman playing straight). Their meeting is awkward at first, however, as they spend more time together, things get more convoluted, not less, as they consider recoupling. Feña’s day is further complicated when his estranged sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder), wants to spend the day with him (she’s run away from school). Feña is also preparing to pick up his father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), who is arriving from Chile, for what is sure to be an intense reunion. Much of the drama comes from Feña and John determining the future of their relationship, and the scenes between Mehiel and Doman crackle with energy. Lungulov-Klotz makes an auspicious feature debut with his compelling film.
Three other notable entries are not explicitly queer, but they should resonate with queer viewers.
“Astrakan” (March 30, 8:30 pm MoMA Titus 2; April 1, 3:30 pm Walter Reade Theater) recounts Samuel’s (Mirko Giannini) experiences while living with foster parents Marie (Jehnny Beth) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon) in rural France. He behaves badly at times, and often gets into trouble; Marie doesn’t know how to handle him, but she and Clément need the money he brings them. Samuel is wary of Marie’s brother, Luc (Théo Costa-Marini) — and when he sees Luc take one of his young nephews into a van, he writes a note he hides for Luc to find. Samuel is, however, intrigued by his classmate Hélène (Lorine Delin), who makes several passes at him. Writer/director David Depesseville makes viewers empathize with Samuel as he struggles and suffers (Clément beats him on two occasions), but also has successes, in gymnastics. “Astrakan” grapples with Samuel’s difficulties before a stunning last act that prompts viewers to re-evaluate everything they have seen. It is a canny approach to the storytelling but delivers a satisfying payoff.
“Petrol” (March 30, 8:30 pm Walter Reade Theater; April 1, 5: 15 pm MoMA Titus 2) is Alena Lodkina’s peculiar drama about Eva (Nathalie Morris), a Melbourne film student, who meets and befriends Mia (Hannah Lynch), a performance artist, at a party. The two young women form a fast, easy friendship, and Mia soon invites Eva to live with her. Yet Eva quickly feels strange forces — doors open mysteriously; Mia takes to disappearing for days; and Bella, the subject of Eva’s documentary tells her, “Someone from the other side is thinking of you” — indicating a connection is trying to be made. Lodkina deliberately keeps things ambiguous, adding magical moments, such as Eva and Mia walking along a beach, then sitting down to a picnic that suddenly appears. A horse senses “a deep current of energy” from a spirit that won’t rest. “Petrol” s-l-o-w-l-y teases out the connections between these two women in ways that can be frustrating, but Lodkina’s poetic film will entrance viewers who fall under its spell.
Likewise, “Disco Boy” (March 31, 6:00 pm MoMA Titus 2; April 1, 8:30 pm Walter Reade Theater) is writer/director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s homoerotic and hypnotic character study. Belarusian Alexsei (Franz Rogowski, from “Great Freedom” and the forthcoming “Passages”) arrives in Paris where he joins the French Foreign Legion as it promises a path to citizenship. Undergoing rigorous training, he is sent to the Niger Delta to save a group of hostages captured by Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), the leader of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Abbruzzese inventively shoots an encounter between Alex and Jomo using night vision that is striking. Alex is haunted by what transpired in Africa, and back in Paris, he sees Jomo’s sister (Laetitia Ky) at a nightclub and becomes obsessed with her. As “Disco Boy” shifts tones and focus, contrasting the camaraderie of the legionnaires with the Nigerians, Abbruzzese shows how these men, bound by duty, each seek a sense of power and belonging. Rogowski is mesmerizing as Alex, a man who feels adrift and struggles to process his palpable emotions — after being trained not to think. The film also benefits from the dynamic cinematography by Hélène Louvart, which captures the textures of Alex and Jomo’s worlds well.
For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit https://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/new-directors-new-films-2023/