Southern California residents and visitors planning to attend screenings at Outfest 2009 - the 27th Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, running July 9 to 19, 2009 - have most likely flipped through the film guide to figure out what they want to see, but over the next week or so I hope to advocate for a few movies to make sure they get on your radar. (Jessica Hoffmann will be reporting from the festival as well.)
While the amateur roots of Colma: The Musical (2006) cannot be ignored (the budget was low, real low; some of the acting was iffy; and not all the singing voices were easy on the ears), the film does possess a plucky enthusiasm and good-natured spirit that begs you to love it. And it's hard not to, considering it's chock full of catchy and frequently funny songs by H.P. Mendoza, the film's screenwriter and co-star. Colma also deserves additional props for showcasing Filipino American leads and tackling gay themes to boot. Mainstream cinema could stand to allow ethnic minorities to sit at the head of the table more often - and gay cinema could stand to do the same.
While Colma focuses on wayward young people in a Bay Area suburb known for its cemeteries (there are more dead people in Colma than the living), H.P. Mendoza's new musical, Fruit Fly (2009), which screens at Outfest on July 11, 2009, follows struggling artists in San Francisco. Just like the way a move from the 'burbs to the big city often represents growing up, Mendoza and his ragtag cast and crew do a bit of growing up as well, as filmmakers.
The movie is gorgeous to look at, moves along at a bouncy clip, and features some imaginative visual effects. (Mendoza takes the helm as director here, while Richard Wong, who directed Colma, is smartly kept on as cinematographer.) Once again, Medoza's songs soar, but his lyrics are even sharper and funnier this time out. The first musical number, "Public Transit," for example, is an irresistible ode to San Francisco's buses, trains, and trolleys - while "Fag Hag," a paean to the women gay men love, builds to a climactic audience sing-along.
Fruit Fly (a kinder, gentler term to replace "fag hag") focuses on a Filipino performance artist named Bethesda, played by L.A. Renigen (who arguably has the most impressive voice and presence in Colma). She moves to San Francisco to find a venue for her show (a self-indulgent piece about identity politics) and becomes obsessed with finding her birth mother.
"Who am I?" and "Where do I come from?" are big, heady questions for any one person to tackle. Fortunately for Bethesda, she rents a room in a house full of artists, all of whom, in one way or another, are trying to find their voices - a gay set designer, a lesbian couple who acts and paints, a 17-year-old Filipino boy who's run away from home. She also seeks solace in San Francisco's gay club scene. You see, being around a bunch of gay guys trying to fit in makes her neuroses stand out just a little less.
None of the characters really end up finding out who they are. Life, the film suggests, is a work-in-progress. Fruit Fly, on the other hand, is complete, and it's a winning musical that begs to be seen. Fortunately, it deserves to be.