Genre films saw a resurgence in positive press a few months ago; with Wonder Woman, Get Out and It breaking records as they campaigned for Oscars, it’s a renaissance of fantastic cinema in the mainstream eye. Two of the aforementioned films also serve as modern fables that address modern concerns. It’s becoming popularly acceptable at last to infuse fantasy with narratives that go beyond the white experience, rather than leaving them as Wonderbread escapism. Yet one must travel all the way to Norway to find a queer superhero, in the form of Joachim Trier’s Thelma.
(Warning: this article contains minor spoilers.)
The X-Men film series has long been considered a parable for the struggle marginalized people face; characters born different, but powerful, hunted because their ‘abnormality’ is seen as a threat. While its predatory cinematic director is enough to disappoint, the film series also frustrates because its metaphors come entirely from subtext. The early comics were also guilty of this, as a predominantly white cast represented a Civil Rights battle that they didn’t have to fight. Marginalized stories are so often distorted to make them more accessible, whitewashed as if they’re still too alien — too dangerous.
A film like Thelma would make one expect the same thing. Reviews and festival summaries tote the story as an elegant superhero origin story; which it undoubtedly is. Thelma’s strange abilities come across as a threat at first, because she can’t understand them; her parents try to cure her out of love; but she frees herself and learns to control her abilities. In the process, she fantasizes a girl, who ends up returning her affection. This romance drives the story, though, and without it, the film would lack a firm narrative. Remove the speculative elements and there is still that core — a young woman awakening to her true self, and finding love.
Even in 2017, a film like Thelma is rare. Queer stories are still relegated to subtext or background noise in genre narratives. There are examples, however, emerging from the woodwork. Roxanne Benjamin’s segment in XX features a gay relationship, so naturally featured that most people didn’t seem to notice.
While each premiered at festivals in 2016, Julia Ducournau’s astounding Raw and Amat Escalante’s intoxicating The Untamed develop equally nuanced, openly gay characters.
Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer tackles its protagonist’s sexuality in an unsettling, but frank, manner.
Elizabeth Schuch has just begun a festival tour with The Book of Birdie, whose main character awakens to her love for a girl while imprisoned at a haunted convent.
As opposed to horror films like The Lost Boys and A Nightmare on Elm St. 2, where queerness is almost an accidental subtext; or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which waits several seasons before revealing a side character’s bisexuality; these new films craft multi-layered queer characters, in which otherness isn’t the character’s defining trait. Thelma’s parents never refer to her queerness, though they reference her budding relationship, and not in a shameful way. He isn’t the protagonist (and suffers an unfortunate fate), but Adrien in Raw expresses genuinely complex anxieties about his sexuality, without drawing melodramatic attention to it. In our modern age, this view of queer people — as just that, people, with traits and conflicts far removed from their sexual identity — is the most honest one.
In many cases, these films end on dark or ambiguous notes; they are, after all, horror stories. It’s thrilling to see gay, lesbian and queer identities expressed openly in these acclaimed works, however, because they’re weird. LGBT cinema is so often relegated to neo-realist, melodramatic or somber styles, with no fantastical trappings — as if we aren’t allowed to live in our imaginations. In turn, genre cinema that speaks to the queer experience often portrays its characters as heterosexual. Seeing the two factions cross over is encouraging, as it implies that the change has begun to occur — but it’s slow.
The fact that, in 2017, we still have to actively seek these characters is disheartening. It’s the same for characters of color and legitimately nuanced women in genre film — it is rare, something to celebrate, but also something to push further. There will come a time, I hope, when we no longer have to react in excitement or astonishment when these films find their way to us. Until then, we must honor films that depict queer life in a variety of ways, while adding a dash of fantasy to the mix. Our next wave of filmmakers can learn by their example, then, and take it a few giant steps further.
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BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid