Two films in theaters now—and expected to win big during awards season—may at first seem familiar, but each, in its own ways, offers fresh perspectives on the LGBTQ experience.
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a sort of retro mashup of “E.T.,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Children of a Lesser God,” a—pardon the cliché—sci-fi “chick flick” for a contemporary generation shaped by these groundbreaking films.
The year is 1962 at the height of the Cold War and Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a young, mute cleaning woman who works in the dark basements of a secret government research facility in Baltimore. Her life is changed forever when she discovers the highly classified “secret” – a mysterious amphibious creature captured in the rivers of South America and kept shackled in a tank.
She begins to communicate with the creature using simple sign language and realizes he is a sentient, emphathetic and magical creature who ultimately would be killed and dissected by the cruel G-men running the lab.
Elisa stages a daring rescue with the assistance of a longtime co-worker (Octavia Spencer), her closeted gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a sympathetic scientist who is really an embedded Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlberg). She keeps the creature alive in her bathtub until his health begins to deteriorate.
And, like “E.T.,” the misunderstood “alien” must be returned to his natural environment before the pursuing government agents find them. Sound familiar?
The story is completely predictable, but thanks to del Toro’s unique vision (and Alexandre Desplat’s lush musical score), “The Shape of Water” goes further, making a powerful statement about the isolation we all experience, especially people who are “different,” despite our shared existence as creatures of God.
Similarly, “Call Me by Your Name” could be any “coming out” film at the local gay film festival: A young, sexually-blossoming boy falls for an older man. A magical summer relationship results before they must part and the boy must confront the growing pains that follow.
Unlike those typical film school projects found on the festival circuit, Luca Guadagnino’s feature is so much more. Timothée Chalamet is stunning as Elio and he’s already been nominated for SAG and Golden Globe Awards. An Oscar nomination should also be forthcoming (hopefully, with wins). Chalamet and Armie Hammer smolder throughout the movie.
The other important co-star is the picturesque Northern Italian countryside, a magical setting for the magical coming out story surely every gay man has fantasized about. The couple frolics in sun-drenched fields and ponds and explores the cobble-stoned alleys in the village of Crema. Spoiler alert: There’s even a raw “American Pie” moment, but Guadagnino manages to make it equally sensual and sultry, too.
The most poignant moment occurs after Oliver (Hammer) leaves. Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlberg, again), an antiquities professor, is understanding and completely open to relationship, especially for a movie set in 1983. He comforts his devastated son, pointing out that even a fleeting love is special and should be cherished.
In today’s #MeToo environment, the story of a 24-year-old man pursuing a gay relationship with a 17-year-old boy might prove toxic at the box office, but the pure beauty of the film and the quality of the writing and acting surmount any perceived inappropriate plotlines.
Check local listings for theaters and show times.