The Moonlight effect: A new wave of gay coming-of-age stories hits theaters
It sucks being a teenager. There’s puberty. There’s high school. There’s heartbreak. But at least there are movies like Clueless and Pretty in Pink to help make the struggle more relatable…unless you’re gay. Aside from appearances by the stock funny friend (e.g., Damian in Mean Girls), major movies have pretty much ignored the gay teenage experience. “When I was a kid, you had to kind of imagine — ‘Well, maybe Duckie is gay,'” says Greg Berlanti (Arrow), referencing Jon Cryer’s geek hero in Pink. “You had to literally do gymnastics in your brain to justify it in your head.”
But the days of mental floor routines seem to be in the past. Coming off the Oscar-winning success of Moonlight, about a gay African-American man’s struggle with his sexuality, there are several films, like this summer’s Beach Rats and this fall’s Call Me by Your Name (out Nov. 24), tackling the “coming-out-of-age” experience, as Berlanti puts it. “Coming out is one of the unique things about the gay experience, and yet there’s something really universal in that. Everyone sort of goes through it, where you let the world know who you really are.”
While there have been notable films that chronicled gay characters, from Longtime Companion (1990) to Brokeback Mountain (2005), TV has historically been the more progressive medium for telling the stories of being a homosexual teenager, from Dawson’s Creek (which Berlanti executive-produced) to Glee. Even the more acclaimed youth-driven gay films — Beautiful Thing and Edge of Seventeen in the 1990s, and more recent examples such as 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color or 2016’s Viva — were made outside of Hollywood and garnered limited releases. “The support systems for those kinds of movies have eroded at the studio level [since Brokeback],” says James Schamus, who produced Ang Lee’s love story and is currently in production on the transgender-themed film Adam. But Schamus posits that studios have been making gay coming-of-age stories for years — just hidden behind masks and capes. “There’s been a gay or queer sensibility informing the creation of the biggest new genre in American cinema, which is the superhero movie,” he says, citing Bryan Singer’s X-Men films as a prime example of a coded blockbuster whose mutant characters “come out” with their special abilities and defy a prejudiced country. “So, oddly, you have this thing where the entire culture is kind of identifying with, celebrating, and massively producing these huge queer texts without maybe recognizing it.”
The less allegorical stories are still largely being made outside the studio system, like the upcoming indie Call Me by Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino’s Italy-set love story between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) has drawn raves for its delicate but erotic romance. “It’s just two men who honestly and tenderly fall for each other, and you see them enjoy that in ways you don’t normally get to see,” Hammer says. “We wanted to make a movie about love, emotion, craving; about tenderness, lust, love, loss, and grief — all of those things.”
The trend is expected to continue. Next March, 20th Century Fox will release Berlanti’s Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a John Hughes-esque tale about a closeted high school senior (Jurassic World‘s Nick Robinson) who starts an email relationship with another gay classmate. The significance of this moment is not lost on Berlanti. “There’s this one section of the film where Simon imagines kissing this boy underneath the mistletoe,” the out director says. “In every other major studio film, it’s always the guy and the girl, and there was something so powerful about it being just a guy imagining himself with this other guy in a film that’s going to be marketed and sold as a mainstream romantic comedy.” Later in 2018, Focus Features will release Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton (The Gift), about a gay teen (Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges) whose parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) push for him to get conversion therapy.
So why this influx of gay films? Many of these movies were already in production before Moonlight’s Best Picture triumph, but visibility certainly helps. It also just takes time, and you don’t need to look further than this summer’s top film for proof. “We were finishing Love, Simon when Wonder Woman was coming out, and I remember thinking, ‘Why aren’t there more movies with female superheroes?'” Berlanti says. “Audiences are open to seeing movies about other experiences.” Adds Guadagnino, “In general, I hope for better and deeper movies and more earnest movies to be made, whether it’s about gay characters or straight characters or bisexual characters. If someone leaves [Call Me by Your Name] feeling the urge to love another person, I think that would be an achievement.” (Additional reporting by Joey Nolfi)