THE CAKEMAKER

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Here is a truly rare film that refuses to put a person's sexuality into a clearly defined category, places no judgment on it, and makes some room for the joy in it. Being a bit removed from typical American puritanism, as a joint Israeli-German production, probably has something to do with that. The Cakemaker, as the title might suggest, also features so many luscious shots of pastries that my mouth is still watering as I write this.

Far more sensual than erotic, this movie really takes its time, but in a way that lets you settle gradually into it, this world of characters who all have a somewhat deadpan delivery, at least until a key moment when one of them breaks down sobbing. These sorts of performances can be difficult to gauge, and are often typical of independent or foreign films. Do none of these people just act like normal, chill people? They're all sort of waiting quietly, perhaps for their moment, when they do something deceptively minor but specifically consequential.

The Cakemaker of the title, named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, a curiously attractive bit of beefcake), is certainly the most calculated in this endeavor. He runs a cafe in Berlin, where he embarks on an affair with a married Israeli man, Oren (Roy Miller), who comes to Berlin from Jerusalem once a month or so for work. But when Oren dies in a car crash in Jerusalem, Thomas takes off for Jerusalem and, without them knowing who he is, gradually befriends Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler, also in this year's excellent Foxtrot) and their son, Itai.

There is obvious historical tension in a relationship between an Israeli and a German, which writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer cultivates with effective subtlety. Perhaps my favorite thing about his layered script is how incidental the sexuality of the characters are. This story would play no differently if the affair were between a man and a woman. It just happens to be between a man and a man. Not one person in this movie ever even draws attention to that fact.

Instead, the prejudice on display is by Anat's brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), who bristles at a German working in the kitchen of Anat's certified-kosher cafe. Still, he gives Thomas a chance, offering him an apartment in the building he manages, and over a lengthy period of time, Thomas takes small steps toward relationship territory with Anat herself.

Now, I do have some questions. Who the hell is running Thomas's cafe back in Berlin? He tells us his parents are gone but not why, and that he was raised by his grandmother. is he independently wealthy? What small business owner can just go live in another country for an indeterminate period of time to pursue a bit of borderline skeevy stalking?

Maybe there's a sort of obsession going on, although The Cakemaker never makes that overtly clear. Does he simply want to become the man he was in love with and lost? Graizer refuses to spoon feed his audience, and okay, I can respect that. There's a couple of great scenes with Oren's mother that strongly suggest she knows what's up ("You knew my son?" she asks, innocently), but again, this is never made explicit.

As this story unfolded, I found myself deciding I would like it best if in the end, Thomas just lived the rest of his days as part of this new family with none of them being the wiser. The way it ends isn't exactly an inevitable alternative, but then, The Cakemaker ends without the satisfaction of a hard resolution.

There's that refusal to spoon feed us again. Graizer -- and Thomas -- are too busy with rolling pins in hand instead, letting tension build gradually and steadily, until a love triangle involving a dead man reveals itself to the living. It's fascinating -- and satisfying -- to see such sociopolitical elements explored in a movie that makes absolutely nothing of its inclusion of a same-sex relationship. I'm not even sure if there is any deliberate metaphorical strain to Thomas unwittingly using the oven in Anat's cafe at the wrong time, thereby threatening her kosher certification.

A fair focus is put on Anat and her family's Jewishness, and Anat's being comparatively non-religious, not eating kosher at home, only applying that to her cafe because it makes business sense. None is put on Thomas's religion, if he even has one; only his being German. Nothing even makes direct reference to Nazi history; Graizer lets the obvious speak for itself. His script, in fact, reveals itself to be more impressive upon further reflection -- a few burning questions notwithstanding. I'd have liked the performances to feel a little more natural, but, as with everything, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Overall: B+

DISOBEDIENCE

Directing: B+
Acting: A-

Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Disobedience is the kind of movie that moves relatively slowly, but the entire time, you can't take your eyes off of it. The opening scene is fairly memorable: an Orthodox rabbi gives a sermon touching on free will among both angels and beasts, right before he drops dead of a heart attack.

Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, the woman we soon learn was this rabbi's daughter. She's working as a photographer in New York when she gets the call; she heads home to her Jewish community in London immediately. It turns out, she hasn't been back in many years. When she reaches the house where a memorial is taking place, an old friend, Dovid (an effectively restrained Alessandro Nivola) answers the door and says to her, "We weren't expecting you."

What follows is a series of awkward encounters, person after person surprised to see Ronit there -- including Esti (an excellent Rachel McAdams), someone it takes Ronit a minute to realize is now married to Dovid. It seems they were all best friends, once upon a time.

Dovid, fully aware of a more complicated history that unfolds in due time, offers to let Ronit stay with him and Esti. Ronit's estrangement from her rabbi father is merely half the story, but certainly always relevant.

Disobedience thus reveals itself to be a love story unlike any other heretofore told. Surely we have seen plenty of same-sex love stories, and we have seen a few movies about strictly conservative Jewish families. We don't see a lot of movies combining the two, particularly with this particular brand of orthodoxy.

Today I learned that orthodox Jewish women often wear wigs, to conform to the religious requirement of covering their hair. Orthodox Jewish men cover their heads with a yarmulke; the women, evidently, have a sheitel. When Ronit arrives back at her Jewish community in London, all the other women around are clearly wearing these wigs, and if you know little about the faith, it's oddly distracting at first, until the film makes it a point of drawing attention to them.

Weisz, for her part, has a fantastic head of hair all her own, so it's nice she mostly keeps it uncovered. It's probably halfway through the film before her romantic past with Esti becomes explicitly clear, and before long they have a fairly explicit sex scene. At lest one thing happens between the two of them that baffled me, but then, I'm a gay man; the lesbian friend I saw it with had no particular insight either. Otherwise, though, even the sex scenes are integral to the story, a shift in the characters' journey rather than any means of simply titillating the audience.

In fact, Disobedience is impressive in its practice of giving the female characters both self-assurance and agency. Even in an ultraconservative context, once Esti is faced with the life choices she has made and where she is now, rather than shutting down and rolling over for her husband, her immediate instinct is to assert herself. It's a beautiful thing to see, especially given that the man, while struggling to come to terms with his own circumstances, respects her choices.

As such, this isn't a movie about shame, as you might expect, so much as it is about coming face to face with the consequences of your own choices early in life, and choosing how to deal with them now. Life is complicated, even more so when not exactly existing in the mainstream of society, and there is no manner of offering any neatly wrapped happy ending for these characters. Satisfying conclusions, though -- that's another matter.

The script, based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, more than once elicits the expectation of a pretty clichéd movie scene: running through an airport; catching up to a loved one in a taxi cab. In ever case, however, the story subtly turns in an unexpected direction, which is the basic nature of the entire story in Disobedience, a deeply affecting love story whose depth slowly sneaks up on you.

An un-Orthodox love triangle.

An un-Orthodox love triangle.

Overall: B+

LOVE, SIMON

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

The first line heard in Love, Simon is "I'm just like you," and, I would argue, that is a misstep. Granted, I'm a middle-aged gay man living in a world contextualized in a far different way than can safely be assumed of any of the young-adult audience this movie is clearly aimed at -- kids who, in all likelihood, don't even realize how radically different the world really is for them. Part of that extraordinary difference is the fact that, although this is a story about a gay teenager struggling with the coming-out process, that target audience includes young adults both gay and straight.

Should I say that my review is aimed more at people at minimum in their thirties, then? It may be a little unorthodox to refer to someone else's review in my own, but Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson wrote a great one, which I related to significantly -- much more so, as it happens, than I did to the movie itself. And yet, I also did not feel quite as disconnected from the film as that review left me expecting I would. Either way, I do find myself wondering how different a review might be from, say, a teen critic writing for their high school newspaper.

The cynic in me, a part of myself I have spent years trying to loosen up, wants to dismiss Love, Simon as a simple, gay fantasy. My own experiences prompt me to ask: In what world would a gay teenager have such an understanding family and such an accepting close circle of friends? Well, here's a novel idea: maybe the real world? Nowhere in Love, Simon is it suggested that all gay kids in 2018 America have the same kind of experience -- only that we do finally live in a world where some of them do, and that does not make their stories any less worth telling. Also: it's not for nothing that the world see even clearly privileged kids with wonderful parents struggle with the uncertainty of coming out.

I don't really subscribe to the criticism that Simon is problematically presented as "straight acting" -- director Greg Berlanti gives no indication that we're to assume all gay kids are like Simon; only that they do exist. This movie still shows us the slightly more stereotypical sort in the one other openly gay kid at Simon's school (Clark Moore, surprisingly subtle, all things considered), who is more effeminate and always at the ready with one-liner retorts. He is also far more self-assured than Simon is. In any case, here we see both ends of the spectrum.

Still, my opening statement still stands: Simon immediately telling us "I'm just like you" serves only to muddle all these points. The set-up is by far the most contrive part of Love, Simon, and comparisons of his family's home to the upper-middle-class home sets of Nancy Meyers movies are apt. I heard that phrase "I'm just like you" and immediately thought, Uh, no you're not. And here my response is quite realistically similar even to that of many kids a third my age -- plenty of kids grow up in families poor enough that their economic problems far overshadow social anxieties, or in families that closer resemble that of the TV show Roseanne (or, to update that to the 21st century, One Day at a Time) than that of Simon.

Simon's little sister (Talitha Bateman, just as adorable as this movie asks for) is an aspiring chef, regularly cooking elaborate meals for the entire family. This is just the most obvious of several things about Simon's family which, if not entirely ringing false, comes across as at least slightly off from realistic. 

And a lot of this set-up in the beginning is presented through countless awkward interactions. I don't do awkward very well: for about the first half-hour, I was squirming in my seat and averting my eyes from the screen more than I do at horror movies.

And then: somehow, Love, Simon coalesces, and proves surprisingly affecting. Suffice it to say that I was touched by it enough to cry several times, and if you're someone who would be interested in this movie to begin with, it would be wise to bring tissues. I may have wept at Simon's parents saying all the right things to him, but it was because I was so happy any gay kid could be so lucky -- it did not have the twinge of bittersweet wistfulness (something I feel regularly about the gay kids who have it better than I did) that I really expected.

Even better, Nick Robinson is well cast as the handsome semi-schlub who is the title character. The casting of his circle of friends barely falls short of feeling self-consciously diverse, but the performances all around make them feel authentic. I have been saying for decades that kids are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, but I only just discovered they are also more sophisticated than I gave them credit for. The activist kids today working for gun control prove that much, if nothing else. None of that stuff comes into play in Love, Simon, but the real world currently shows us that, like the kids in this movie, kids are on average a lot more worldly than they used to be.

Nick Robinson is 22 years old, by the way -- and here he's playing 17. Funny, back in 2013's lovely The Kings of Summer he was eighteen, playing 15. I guess he's had a young face for a while. This kind of casting is often complained about, but it's only a problem if the actors' age is obvious. Robinson very much looks the part of a high schooler, and he plays one with true depth of understanding.

We are treated with Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as Simon's doting parents devoid of judgment, and even if they are not likely "just like yours," they certainly fit the parts perfectly in Simon's world. The great thing about Love, Simon is how little noteworthy is its very existence -- another gay story devoid of what used to be obligatory tragedy. Boring is better than tragic, and although Simon's life is not all that exciting, his story is neither tragic or boring. Any story can be compelling if told the right way, and once both Simon and Love, Simon get past their awkward missteps, this story is as compelling as any -- perhaps for different reasons, but for audiences older and younger alike.

love, simon.jpg

Overall: B+

TWIST Advance: SATURDAY CHURCH

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Music: B+

Back in 2008, there was this thoroughly charming, coming-of-age / coming-out movie that was also a gay-themed musical, called Were the World Mine. Its music was so wonderful that I bought the soundtrack. Ah, those innocent -- or maybe ignorant -- cisgendered, white-centric days.

That's not to denigrate Were the World Mine in any way, as to this day I would eagerly recommend it to anyone. Its Shakespearean themes are magically interwoven into its story, and it remains a unique vision worthy of attention. But a lot of time has also passed since then, and we now live in a post-Tangerine world. In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected, we lived in a time of naive hope. The 2017 Trump era underscores the need for attention to wider ranges of oppressed communities, and to intersectionality, and Saturday Church couldn't be coming at a better time.

Indeed, it should be very much considered a compliment to say that Saturday Church bears notable resemblance to Were the World Mine. It doesn't rip it off in any way, and neither is it literate in the same way -- rather, it expands upon similar concepts, and draws a clearer line between fantasy and reality, even as it indulges in fantastical musical numbers. These are all literal fantasies of its main character, Ulysses (Luka Kain, fairly new to feature films after some experience in both commercials and on Broadway, very well cast here), a young teenager withdrawing from the harsh real-world reactions to a budding interest in women's clothes.

With Saturday Church, writer-director Damon Cardasis is not preoccupied with gender identity, particularly when it comes to his main character. The hard-nosed Aunt Rose, recruited to look after Ulysses and little brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) in the wake of their father's death as their mother has to take on extra work, is the only one who makes a point of characterizing Ulysses as both "a black boy, and he's gay." But Aunt Rose, played by Regina Rose without much nuance perhaps because her character is the most one-dimensional, clearly doesn't know what she's talking about.

Ulysses takes the subway into Manhattan, encounters a group of young trans women, and gets invited to the Saturday Church of the title, inspired by a real-life church program for LGBTQ youth.  These transgender women, who are a few years older, takes Ulysses under their wing, along with a young boy, Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), who develops a sweetly romantic interest. Neither he nor any of Ulysses's other new friends spend any time discussing labels -- an almost ironic notion, given that Saturday Church is one of very few films in which trans women of color are actually played by trans women of color: the only other notable one that comes to mind is, again, Tangerine. That said, for all their entertainingly jaded sarcasm, they prove to be real friends to Ulysses, very much encouraging the blossoming of interest in makeup and high heeled shoes.

In its way, Saturday Church is also a coming-out story, only within the context of gender variance. And make no mistake, there is some real emotional pain and some sexual trauma, a realistic reflection of what too many people go through in order to survive. This movie goes out of its way to reflect the stark realities of many trans women of color in particular, the wide range of attitudes toward sex work and the constraints on finding lasting relationships. What makes this movie truly stand apart is how it spends equal time on the unequivocal joys that can also be found along the journey of authentic self-discovery.

To say I found Saturday Church deeply moving would be an understatement. Sure, it made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me cry for multiple reasons. I shed tears for the familiar tensions Ulysses endured in the face of ignorant family members, contrived as they sometimes were. But for perhaps the first time at a movie with so much focus on transgender issues, I shed far more tears of joy, quite literally, as I watched a young person never specifically gendered find an authentic self.

The musical sequences, used both sparingly and effectively, are icing on the cake. Unlike a more conventional musical, where characters burst into song for no discernible reason, here the singing is always part of the main character's elaborate fantasies, which still grounds them in the real world. Compared to Were the World Mine, which I just can't help doing because the films are so similar in concept, the songs are not quite as good, the lyrics less refined or clever, but on average the vocal talent here is far better.  Saturday Church features some truly great singing, albeit paired with choreography that could have used a little more polish.

That said, any minor complaint I might have about it is nothing but nitpicking. It's all about the story, and even with at least one particularly one-note character, this story is deeply affecting. Saturday Church has charms all its own, unlikely to be forgotten for some time.

Luka Kain turns tragedy into beauty in  Saturday Church.

Luka Kain turns tragedy into beauty in Saturday Church.

Overall: A-

BEACH RATS

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Here is a young actor to keep an eye out for: Harris Dickinson, who is a revelation in Beach Rats, as Frankie, a sexually repressed and confused teen living in Brooklyn. Dickinson is himself all of 20 years old, and grew up in London, and yet it's impossible to imagine any other actor better conveying the fine nuances of Frankie's complex range of emotions -- his self-doubt, his inner struggles, even his internalized homophobia.

Writer-Director Eliza Hittman unpacks this story with deceptive simplicity. She also ends it with a frustrating lack of any resolution whatsoever, something at once respectable and maddening. It's the one true complaint I might have about this film, the way it feels like it ends abruptly in the middle of Frankie's story. Being ambiguous is one thing; fading quickly to black at a seemingly random moment is quite another.

Until that end, however, Beach Rats is a uniquely compelling vision, Frankie systematically making your heart break for him. He hangs out with three straight "bro" types whose behaviors he emulates. It's only after an opening scene in which Frankie is on his computer trolling for older men that we find this out. And he meets a sweet girl (Madeline Weinstein) on the boardwalk while hanging out there with said friends. She complicates things as she makes bold moves in pursuit of Frankie, who has difficulty feigning arousal.

Beach Rats is unusually frank in its depictions of sex, no doubt made easier by its lacking of an MPAA rating. Just consider it a hard-R, considering the number of (flaccid) penises that flash on the screen -- several of them on Frankie's computer as he clicks through a Chat Roulette type site evidently local to Brooklyn. But whether they are of Frankie and Simone making fumbling attempts at physical intimacy, or Frankie and several older men he takes to the beach at night, all these scenes are tastefully shot.

The cinematography, in fact, is regularly hypnotic -- even shots of Frankie and his friends blowing smoke rings at a hookah bar. Beach Rats was shot by Hélène Louvart, who has a long resume but also shot Pina, the 2011 tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch that is arguably the single documentary in history that worked stupendously in 3D. Beach Rats employs a lot of handheld camera work which is seamlessly and beautifully integrated into the story.

That story takes a darker turn near the end, and that's after learning that his father is dying of cancer. He has a younger sister with her own interest in boys, and a mother with clearly too much on her emotional plate. Then Frankie and his friends hatch a plan to get drugs off one of the guys he finds on that website -- he convinces the guys that it's all he uses the site for. Frankie does a lot of drugs, including snorting pills he snatches from his father's prescriptions and crushes into powder.

Now all they want is weed. But in this endeavor, things get increasingly uncomfortable. A feeling builds, that this is going nowhere good. Where it heads is something that could have been worse. It could also be a lot better. Such is the case with Frankie. But if you're looking for either a definitive sign of hope or confirmation of hopelessness with this poor kid, you won't find either one of them here. Will his turmoil go on for the rest of his life? You might leave this movie just overcome with the wishful thinking that one day he'll be okay. That feeling is a credit to both the film's assured direction and Harris Dickinson's unsurpassed performance.

Harris Dickinson gives a uniquely heartbreaking performance in  Beach Rats .

Harris Dickinson gives a uniquely heartbreaking performance in Beach Rats.

Overall: B+