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SXSW: Clean

Sandra Pankhurst was an incredible woman. She lived through so much trauma in her early years, more than anyone should bear. Sandra knew how trauma could effect people and was inspired to start her business: Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services in Melbourne, Australia. Her team specializes in all kinds of cleaning, in particular hoarding cases and trauma clean-ups after suicides, murders and other sudden deaths. Having to deal with the death of a loved one is already such a burden, Sandra felt that she could help people by taking on the responsibility of cleaning up the aftermath. When she began her business in the 1990s, trauma cleaning was not an available service and she saw a crucial need that she could fill. Sandra and her team never judge or meddle. They’re just there to provide a valuable service.

Directed by Lachlan McLeod, Clean takes a two-prong approach telling the story of Sandra Pankhurst’s difficult life journey as well as that of her business. The subject of trauma cleaners is a fascinating one and anyone intrigued by the subject will find the documentary very rewarding. Sandra herself was charismatic and endlessly interesting. So many aspects of her life are explored including her traumatic adoption story, the search for her birth mother, her journey as a transgender woman, her health struggles and her triumphs as a business owner and public speaker.

The documentary feels disjointed, depends a bit too much on reveals and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Sandra was fiercely private in regards to some aspects of her life so there are some things that the filmmakers just couldn’t show. With that said, the filmmakers show a lot of respect for their main subject Sandra as well as her cleaning team and their clients. While the film might leave viewers wanting more, it’s still well worth a watch.

Clean had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Slamdance: cosboi

Directed by Gosha Shapiro (they/them), cosboi is a short film that follows the story of a genderqueen teen who goes on a journey of self-discovery through TikTok and anonymous Uber-type rides. Through the power of the For You Page on TikTok, the teen is inspired by advice and wisdom to venture out and practice new forms of themselves in conversation with rideshare drivers. This film beautifully demonstrates a pivotal time in a teen’s life when they are discovering who they are through self-reflection, media consumption, practice and rebellion.

cosboi premiered at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

Sundance: Am I OK?

Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and June (Sonoya Mizuno) are inseperable. When Lucy discovers that June is moving to London for her job, she’s beside herself. Especially because Lucy is starting to come to terms that despite many attempts at heteronormative relationships, she’s really not interested in men at all. June tries to help guide Lucy in her new journey of coming out of the closet but their disagreements on how Lucy should go about it and what will happen to their friendship when June leaves for London threatens to tear their relationship apart.

Directed by Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro Am I OK? is not your typical coming-out story and in that way it feels fresh and different. Lucy struggles with the intricacies of same sex attraction, especially the mixed signals she gets from her coworker. This film didn’t wow me but it was enjoying. Am I OK? is a heartfelt comedy about friendship and sexuality.

Note to add: I’m not sure when this was shot but there are several scenes that take place in the old 101 Coffee Shop which was a Hollywood treasure until it closed during the pandemic.  It’s now one of the locations for the Clark Street  chain.

Am I OK? premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

AFI Fest: Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker

J.C. Leyendecker was one of the most influential commercial artists working in the early 20th century. His work graced many magazine covers, including The Saturday Evening Post, and his character The Arrow Collar Man was one highly recognized figure in advertising. He influenced how illustrators approached advertising and magazine art and was an early inspiration for Norman Rockwell. But perhaps more importantly, Leyendecker, a gay man whose lover Charles Beach was the primary model for his work, coded his art with homoerotic imagery that was both subtle and subversive. 

Directed by Ryan White, Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker is a fascinating portrait of a lesser known LGBTQ icon. The documentary explores his work, his long-term relationship with his partner/model Charles Beach and the many ways he influenced advertising and popular culture through art. It includes  interviews, examples of his art and animated sequences.The film tries to make a direct connection to the modern day representations of LGBTQ models in commercial photography but not very effectively. It’s 29 minutes long and I think it could be expanded into a feature length documentary to offer more biographical details and historical context.

Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Meet the Press programming.

Ema

Reggaeton dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is in a tumultuous relationship with her choreographer/husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal). The two seem hellbent at destroying their relationship, throwing verbal jabs at each other and pouring salt on emotional wounds. Their adopted son Polo (Cristián Suárez) has been taken away for his destructive behavior and rehomed with a new family. Ema is desperate to get Polo back and will go to great lengths, including targeting the two new parents, to get him back. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery and destruction in order to fulfill her deepest desires.

Ema, you’re going to battle.”

Director Pablo Larraín’s erotically charged Ema sets the screen ablaze with its magnetic star Mariana Di Girolamo. Her unique look, donning bleach blonde shellacked hair and a piercing gaze, is mesmerizing and you can’t help but fall for her like the other characters do in her story. There are some heavy themes including toxic relationships, parenthood, polyamory, self-destruction, sadism and pyromania. Scenes are intercut with dance sequences that feel seamless.

It’s difficult to understand why some of the characters, particularly Gaston, are so hard on Ema. And at one point I was getting We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) vibes but Polo’s mental health struggles are not at all explored. I wish Ema’s story came with more background  and context but that might have taken away from her mystery and charm.

TW: Depictions of fire and the aftermath of a serious burn. This film premiered at TIFF a couple years ago and while I wanted to watch it then I recently had burned my leg and couldn’t deal with any imagery of a burn victim (Ema’s sister after an accident) and fire (Ema sets objects on fire with a flamethrower). I’m glad I waited as I was much more prepared to watch the film this time around.

Ema is a paradigm: she’s a character of characters. Daughter, mother, sister, wife, lover and leader. She’s very powerful and presents a striking, beautiful sort of femininity. She’s motivated by relentless individualism, as she clearly knows what she wants and is capable of seducing those around her in order to line up her destiny. She wants to be a mother and have a family; perhaps what moves and motivates her the most is love.

Pablo Larraín

Music Box Films will be releasing Ema on digital and VOD on September 14th. Visit the official website for more information.

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