Over 50 years into the tradition of “Pride” as we know it, it’s clear that Hollywood has significantly evolved in its portrayal of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Four years ago, Moonlight won an Oscar. The very next year, so did Call Me By Your Name. Peddle back over a decade and you’ll stumble upon Brokeback Mountain, which racked up three gold statues (and angered many when it lost Best Picture to the very controversial Crash). And ask any cinephile what their choice for “biggest recent awards snub” is, and you’ll probably get a few answers about Céline Sciamma’s spellbinding Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Love, Simon broke box office records several years ago. And even though The Prom was objectively a mess, with Ryan Murphy and Netflix at the helm, it easily became one of the most talked-about films of the year.
But what about the smaller films? The independent ones with microscopic budgets that never receive mainstream acclaim — and sometimes, never even made it to a theater? Films like these pop up constantly; in the case of LGBTQ+ fare, the probability that a film won’t ever reach the upper echelons of Hollywood approval jumps up significantly. But just because they didn’t get a splashy red carpet premiere or the validation of the admittedly narrow-minded Academy doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of your time. Which is why this Pride Month is the perfect time to watch some queer content that hasn’t already captured widespread attention. Below, NYLON recommends ten underrated LGBTQ+ films, including a charming rom-com, a hilarious satirical comedy, an incisive documentary, a heartbreaking drama, and an uplifting musical.
Breaking Fast on Hulu
After screening Breaking Fast at last year’s OutFest, I immediately pointed out how “corny” it was — though, even then, I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Directed by first-time feature maker Mike Mosallam, Breaking Fast is a rom-com in the classic, early-aughts sense, one that doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: a beat-by-beat story about two people meeting, falling for each other, experiencing a few complications, and eventually coming back together. But it also excels in these criteria, telling a story that doesn’t exactly surprise but definitely still delights.
Starring the painfully attractive (and openly gay) Haaz Sleiman (soon-to-be-seen in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals) as Mo, a gay Muslim doctor who is also a virgin, and The O.C.’s Michael Cassidy as Kal, an aspiring actor, the film does provide a spin on the classic rom-com by centering Islamic culture, as the pair get to know each other during Ramadan over Mo’s daily iftars. Probing slightly difficult material (Mo has to balance his new relationship with his faith) without ever veering too far off the expected, lighthearted track, Breaking Fast is an adorable addition to the gay rom-com canon, featuring two brilliant lead performances that buzz with chemistry.
Call Her Ganda on Amazon Prime
In Tagalog, the word “ganda” means “beautiful,” and after watching the heartbreaking Call Her Ganda, you’ll be hard-pressed to refute the idea that the late Jennifer Laude wasn’t worthy of that as her nickname. Nevertheless, this 2018 documentary is not exactly a “beautiful” story — it tracks the aftermath of the tragic 2014 murder of its titular character, who was violently strangled and drowned in a motel toilet by a 19-year-old U.S. Marine who lashed out after finding out that Jennifer was trans. Much of the reporting surrounding the ensuing legal case is led by journalist and author Meredith Talusan, a Philippina trans woman herself, who doggedly seeks answers from everyone — officers, friends, family members — as she tries to uncover the truth.
Given that trials like these are only allowed to last for a year before a suspect is allowed to be released to their home country, Call Her Ganda often feels less like a traditional documentary than a crime thriller focused on a real-life travesty as journalists, authorities, and Jennifer’s family and friends all work against the clock to get justice before it’s too late. Probing issues of transphobia, consent, the protection of sex workers, international relations, the insidiousness of American imperialism, and what we allow our most decorated citizens to get away with, Call Her Ganda is a vital watch for everyone — even if it can be quite difficult to stomach at times.
Cowboys on Netflix
“I’m not confused. I’ve known my entire life,” says Joe about 25 minutes into the excellent Cowboys. A young child, Joe is trying to explain to his father that he knows he’s a boy, despite the fact that he had been raised as a girl his entire life. It’s a powerful moment and the line has stuck with me since first seeing Cowboys last year — particularly in light of the recent onslaught of anti-trans legislation that seems to be specifically targeting trans kids under the false premise that they are too young to make real decisions about their own bodies.
Directed by Anna Kerrigan, Cowboys isn’t meant to be didactic, but does still feel like a proper corrective to this notion, following Joe and his bipolar father, Troy (Steve Zahn), as they sneak away from their Montana hometown to escape to Canada, where Joe can live freely as himself. The only problem is Joe’s unsupportive transphobic mother, Sally (Workaholics’ Jillian Bell), who pushed her son away by not accepting his gender identity and has now put out an amber alert to find him, claiming that his father kidnapped him. A captivating drama with gorgeous countryside cinematography, Cowboys is a great debut feature, boosted by its terrific supporting cast that includes The Handmaid’s Tale’s Emmy-winning Ann Dowd and Search Party’s John Reynolds. Still, the film’s beating heart is the star-making turn by 10-year-old Sasha Knight, whose performance as Joe offers solid proof that no one can play a trans character better than an actor who actually is trans.
Dating Amber on HBO Max
There’s been a lot of recent discussion about the necessity for coming-out stories in 2021, a time when more people than ever identify somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Movies like 2018’s Love, Simon can feel quite trite when considering how many young people now feel comfortable being openly gay — but that reality certainly doesn’t mean that coming-out stories have absolutely no place in the modern media landscape. Look no further than Dating Amber.
Set in 1990s Scotland, the film follows Eddie and Amber, two high school students, both gay and closeted, who decide to “date” each other in an effort to ward off speculation from their obnoxious classmates. The baseline setup — beard-for-beard — naturally lends itself to hilarious laughs, but it also provides ample social commentary about society’s unfortunate tendency to force LGBTQ+ teens into a box where fake heterosexuality feels like the only possible solution. Directed by David Freyne, the 2020 film has everything: heartwarming but appropriately complicated sexual awakenings, immersive party scenes, ample jokes, and Catastrophe’s ever-reliable Sharon Horgan as a supportive mother — all while telling an uplifting story about the unlikely bond that can develop between two teens struggling with the same inner turmoil.
G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) on Amazon Prime
It’s been about eight years since G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) premiered, and I still haven’t seen another film lampoon the fetishization of queer culture with quite as much effortless panache. Starring openly gay actors Michael J. Willett (Faking It) and Paul Iacono (The Hard Times of R.J. Berger) as best friends Tanner and Brent, the hilarious comedy kicks off when Tanner, a shy comic book nerd, is outed by one of his classmates. Where G.B.F. diverges from other queer high school films, however, is in the response to Tanner’s unfortunate outing.
Rather than be ridiculed by the rest of the student body, Tanner, as the only out gay student on campus, immediately becomes one of the most popular boys in school — thanks to several teen magazines that have recently claimed “gay best friends” as the season’s hottest accessory. Soon, Tanner is being relentlessly recruited by the three most popular girls in school (each from a rival clique), stoking the ire of his longtime confidante Brent, who is also gay, much more flamboyant, and actually wanted to come out and be popular. Directed by the openly gay Darren Stein (of Jawbreaker fame), G.B.F. is the rare film to send up clichés about queerness without being offensive, mining laughs that thankfully feel like they’re coming from inside the house.
The Half of It on Netflix
Over a decade and a half after releasing her groundbreaking lesbian film Saving Face, Alice Wu finally returned to Hollywood with The Half of It, a much different but equally heartfelt film about an Asian woman struggling through aspects of her sexuality. Subtitled “A Different Kind of Love Story,” The Half of It is loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s seminal play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which a gifted poet writes love letters on behalf of someone less eloquent, despite the poet actually being in love with the recipient of the letters himself.
In The Half of It, the Cyrano character is Ellie Chu (Nancy Drew’s Leah Lewis, in a breakout role), an incredibly intelligent student who makes extra money to support her father by writing essays for her classmates. Eventually, Ellie is approached by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a stereotypically inept football player, who wants Ellie to help him impress Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). But as Ellie, pretending to be Paul, writes letters and texts to Aster, she slowly begins to fall for the girl herself, realizing just how much the two share in common with regard to art and literature. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that Aster thinks she’s communicating with Paul, but also by the fact that, slowly but surely, Paul and Ellie are forming a close friendship of their own. Without spoiling, the ending upends the common formula of similar teen films, easily making this 2020 standout one of the most refreshing LGBTQ+ films in recent memory.
Mosquita y Mari on Netflix
Written and directed by Aurora Guerrera, Mosquita y Mari follows two 15-year-old girls: Yoli (who’s given the nickname “Mosquita” because she “looks like a little fly”) and Mari, who befriend each other shortly after Mari moves in across the street. A slow-burning romance about two girls from opposite worlds — Yoli is a studious yet sheltered straight-A student from a loving, supportive family; Mari is a rebellious stoner with a contentious relationship with her mother — the film opens up interesting conversations about gender, class, and of course, sexuality.
But it also deserves praise for its powerful sense of place. The coming-of-age story takes place in Huntington Park, a primarily Latinx immigrant community in the heart of Los Angeles. While the budding connection between Yoli and Mari guides the film, it would be nothing without its loving depiction of Chicana culture, which feels buzzing, vibrant, and full of life. I mean, any movie where a character describes a math formula as “The Culo Theorem” (never forget when we used to refer to “angle-angle-side” as “ASS”) is more than worth your time.
Pariah on Netflix
Dee Rees is now an Oscar-nominated writer-director thanks to her brilliant work helming the phenomenal post-World War II Mary J. Blige film Mudbound. But seven years before she’d become the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Rees was causing a stir at Sundance with the critically-acclaimed premiere of her debut feature Pariah. Starring Adepero Oduye as Alike, the film tracks her as she lives a double-life: trying to pass as a stereotypically feminine 17-year-old at home with her family while also living her truth as a butch-presenting lesbian when she leaves the house to hang out with her friends.
One of the first films to truly capitalize on the appeal of “bisexual lighting,” the entire film takes place bathed in a neon-lit glow of pinks, blues, and purples, adding to the overall ethereal vibe of this small indie. A deeply felt film about a very specific experience (Black, queer, working class), Pariah announced the arrival of a truly visionary director and still feels fresh today.
Saturday Church on Amazon Prime
Shortly before she’d take the world by storm with her knockout Pose performance as Mother Blanca Evangelista, the incredible Michaela Jaé “Mj” Rodriguez played a different house mother in Saturday Church. Directed by Damon Cardasis, the 2017 musical film also takes place in the alluring world of ballroom and vogue, following Ulysses (newcomer Luka Kain), an effeminate 14-year-old boy who, after frequently butting heads with his conservative aunt, ventures out into the streets of New York City where he eventually finds himself through the art of vogue.
A fascinating exploration of coming-of-age, religion-induced homophobia, gender performance, and the power of chosen family, Saturday Church is just as healing as it can sometimes be devastating. The performances by Kain and Rodriguez are outstanding, but the film is rounded out by a cast of equally talented performers, including fellow future Pose stars Indya Moore (once again playing one of Rodriguez’s “adopted” children) and Alexia Garcia, When They See Us’ Marquis Rodriguez, She Gotta Have It’s Margot Bingham, and The Unit’s Regina Taylor.
Supernova on Hulu
In a different year, a film like this year’s Supernova would have dominated the awards circuit. Starring Stanley Tucci as an aging gay man succuming to early onset dementia and Colin Firth as his loving partner of 20 years, the film follows the couple as they take what they believe will be their final road trip to see friends and family before the inevitable happens. A sensitive film about boundless love and the toll of terminal illness, the Harry Macqueen-directed film is a powerful testament to the need for more complex stories about the older generation.
Of course, there’s always the issue of whether or not straight actors can (or should) play gay roles. But while, in an ideal world, such roles would be reserved for LGBTQ+ actors — who have historically found it harder to secure any roles in Hollywood and should thus be given precedence for actual queer characters — the matter requires a much more nuanced answer than just “yes” or “no.” A film like Supernova, which isn’t as much about the gay experience as it is about two men who happen to be gay reckoning with a life-altering diagnosis, is evidence of this: Gay actors would have, of course, been preferable — but Tucci and Firth (who have both played beloved gay characters before, in The Devil Wears Prada and A Single Man, respectively) certainly make strong cases for themselves, turning in performances that feel lived-in and true.