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« TIFF: The Quietude | Main | Cynthia Erivo will play Harriet Tubman »
Friday
Sep142018

Queer TIFF: "Bulbul Can Sing" and "Giant Little Ones"

by Chris Feil

Crafted with a Malickian grace, though with its feet planted more firmly on the ground, Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing is a coming of age tale of deep feeling. Set in rural India, many of its notes will seem initially familiar: the innocence of first loves, rampant patriarchal demands, the unity of friendship broken by consequences. What makes this film sink deeper is its refusal to reduce its punishment for the sake of comforting, motivational sentiment. Respecting the humanity of its teenagers, its uplift comes from a human spirit impossible to snuff out completely.

Bulbul is a farmgirl just beginning to push the limits of her family’s traditional expectations. She spends most of her time with her friends Bonny and Suman, a quiet boy mocked for his effeminacy. Though when Bonny and Bulbul escape to a lovers’ point with their boyfriends for some chaste privacy, a gang of men discover them and set into motion an ostracizing for the teenagers that will unravel their simple lives together. We’ve seen cruel male dominated societies enacting their strictures on screen before, but rarely with this sense of youthful opportunity squandered down to the soul.

Even more interesting is how Das portrays Bulbul as losing her sense of camaraderie in the process and the isolative effects such conservatism can enact. Suman was keeping the warning watch for Bulbul and Bonny, but the appearance of the masculine brute force of the gang forces him away, causing Bulbul to blame him for the fallout. In losing and ultimately regaining her allyship, part of her growth is in understanding a common enemy, the toxic masculinity that can be swayed against both women and queer people.

The film begins elegiac before the trouble comes, with the film evolving into a more sober and detached presentation that makes us feel helpless. Wrought for feeling without catharsis, Bulbul Can Sing is notable for its beauty and wise queer adjacencies.

Grade: B

Meanwhile, a more straightforward teen coming of age story can be found in the Canadian film Giant Little Ones. Worthwhile for its alternating sweetness and frankness, the film still falls prey to teen movie cliches that limit its impact. Built on an electrosynch soundtrack and an almost stifling degree of whiteness, it feels built on the backs of its predecessors both straight and not. But what makes Giant Little Ones tougher to dismiss by its mere existence is what it provides for young audiences: a message that sexual identity need not be thought of so definitively or restricted by labels at such a young age.

Josh Wiggins plays Franky, a blank slate often guided by his more mischievous and ill behaving best friend, Darren Mann’s Ballas. A night of partying leads to sudden sexual exploration that separates the two in shame, with Franky taking the public ostracization when Ballas spreads misinformation about how it went down. It’s standard teen drama fare that doesn’t condescend to its teen characters, but doesn’t really make them feel real either.

Elsewhere, the film finds other approaches to queer acceptance that it hits and misses equally. Niamh Wilson is Franky’s gender-fluid supportive friend Mouse, affirmed positively on screen even though she exists solely for laughs. But the element to most pull at heartstrings: Kyle MacLachlan as Franky’s estranged father, now happily remarried to a man and longing to reconnect to his resentful son. MacLachlan is graceful where the film wants him to be a greeting card, bringing genuine understated heart to the overly manufactured sentiment the script gives him.

Grade: C

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