Outfest 2014: 'Life Partners,' other films move beyond the coming out stage

Outfest 2014: 'Life Partners,' other films move beyond the coming out stage
Leighton Meester, left, and Gillian Jacobs, center, in a scene from the movie, "Life Partners." (Outfest Los Angeles)

In its 32nd year, Outfest — Los Angeles' LGBT film festival — finds itself in a celebratory mood.

In a historic ruling last summer, the Supreme Court declared a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and now 19 states have legalized same-sex marriage. It's a major shift from the state of LGBT rights in 1982 when UCLA students first conceived the festival.

"The community feels like they're still kind of on a high," Outfest Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer said. "We've had some of the best ticket sales this year that we have had in a number of years. You just feel this sort of joy around Outfest, around being together. The gay community is continuing to celebrate and really excited to see our lives and stories on screen."

This year's festival — which begins Thursday and runs through July 20 across Los Angeles — offers 175 films from 23 countries, and a chance to see how filmmakers have interpreted the recent wave of success for the LGBT community. One change: a move from a story of coming out to that of a life where sexuality serves as one component of a complex story.


"We have seen a shift from the central conflict being about one's sexual identity or gender identity to it being core to the character but not the central conflict," Schaffer said.

Schaffer cites the festival's opening comedy at the Orpheum, "Life Partners," as an example. The first feature film of director Susanna Fogel follows the best friendship of 29-year-olds Sasha (Leighton Meester), an unmotivated receptionist, and type-A lawyer Paige (Gillian Jacobs) as they try to maintain their codependent friendship while finding their own respective "life partners."

It's a realistic and poignant portrayal of how friendship changes with age, and the sexuality of the characters — Sasha's gay and Paige is straight — takes a back seat to the complexity of their platonic love. Adam Brody stars in the film as Paige's love interest (Brody and Meester were dating at the time before marrying early this year), and Kate McKinnon and Gabourey Sidibe both have parts as Sasha's blind date and fellow lesbian friend, respectively.

Fogel said "Life Partners" began as a one-act play that she penned with her writing partner Joni Lefkowitz three years ago. The play always centered on what she calls a "spouse-like friendship," but the sexuality of the characters had more political underpinnings as Paige promised Sasha she wouldn't marry until gay marriage was legal. After recent civil rights successes, the film changed gears.

"Over the three years between then and now, the whole country's attitudes changed and the zeitgeist made this major shift for the better," Fogel said. "We felt like the emotional underpinnings were more important and less so the politics. The sexualities aren't all-important to the plot — they're in the ether of the plot — and I'm proud to say it's not spotlighted in an overtly political way."

Jacobs, known to audiences for her role in "Community," said she related to the film's depiction of female friendship and her own similarities to her type-A character.

"I think that this is a film that a lot of people enjoy because the character's sexuality is just one aspect of her character and it isn't the focus of the film," Jacobs said. "I think that was refreshing to people who saw it in New York, and I think it's a really great depiction of a character who is gay in addition to a whole other slew of characteristics. It's a very realistic depiction of a female friendship that you don't see too often."

There's a similar find in "Appropriate Behavior," which screens Tuesday at the Directors Guild of America and features a "Girls"-esque comedic tone as well as a Brooklyn setting. The main character — played by director and writer Desiree Akhavan — is a twentysomething bisexual Iranian American navigating many facets of her identity. Coming out plays a role in the story, but equally as much as coming into the other parts of her character.

Though the recent success in LGBT rights brings a reason to celebrate, there's still work to be done, Schaffer said, and particularly abroad. She cites "Winter Journey," a film from Russia about the country's homophobic tendencies, and "Salvation Army," which tells the story of a gay Muslim.

The standout documentary feature, "Back on Board: Greg Louganis," poetically contrasts the Olympic diver's rise to success with the struggles he faced finding his sexuality and acceptance as a gay man with HIV in the athletic community.

Kristin Pepe, director of programming for Outfest, said she also noted a change in transgender narratives in this year's films, with stories moving beyond the physical transition itself and into life as a transgender person. She noted there's an increase in horror films as well, like "Lyle," an ode to "Rosemary's Baby" centered on a lesbian couple and starring Gaby Hoffmann.

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