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Wanting answers.

In the well-observed new film Come Early Morning, Ashley Judd plays an Arkansas woman who confronts her family baggage the only way she knows how: by getting drunk and giving in to it. So sure is she that she could never have a happy relationship that she pushes aside a decent guy (Jeffrey Donovan) who's been trying to introduce her to unfamiliar concepts like foreplay and kissing while sober. After ending up alone again, attempting a preemptive strike against the dysfunction, cheating, and abuse she's seen in her familial interactions, Judd's had enough, and she confronts her pastor, angrily jabbing her finger into the Bible. "I want to know about this," she says. "The sins of the father. Why do I have to carry around shit that's not mine?"

She's not the only one wondering. Several new films this season explore tricky transactions between parent and child, teacher and student, idol and fan. Sure to be among the most controversial of these is The History Boys, which adds a soupcon of illicit sex to the familiar Dead Poets Society formula: Richard Griffiths's Hector is a rotund English teacher who inspires his teen pupils with poetry and analysis and then, at the end of the day, invites them onto his motorbike to discreetly cop a feel.

Conscious of a cultural climate in which priests and congressmen are censured for this sort of thing, The History Boys takes great pains to say, "He ought to know better," but the film's heart isn't really in it. Director Nicholas Hytner (who also helmed the gay-themed The Object of My Affection) seems to see this kind of arrangement as a justified transaction: teachers selflessly bestowing knowledge and demanding only the mildest sexual contact in return. In fact, none of the students seem to mind Hectors fumblings very much, and some actually feel left out when they're not selected for--a false note that reveals exactly how stacked this film's deck is.

Adapted from Alan Bennett's Tony award-winning play, The History Boys eventually overcomes its stagy feel with Oscar-caliber performances and powerful moments late in the game, but it's going to be a hard sell for its studio, Fox Searchlight. The movie has a distinct gay sensibility (the students here would rather reenact scenes from Now, Voyager than listen to the period rock tunes propping up the soundtrack), but at the same time, every gay teacher here lusts after his students--and there are two more introduced besides Hector. At a time when gay people's rights are under attack, not only the right to marry but right to head a classroom, will queer audiences condone the behavior of these teachers as much as the film wants us to?

The new French film Backstage tackles the same issues from another perspective: that of a young girl taken under the wing of a Madonna-like pop star. When the glamorous Lauren Waks (Emmanuelle Seigner) surprises teenage fan Lucie at her house to tape a television program, the obsessed Lucie breaks down and retreats to her bedroom, effectively scuttling the show. Still, this brush with her idol has left the young girl dazed, and when she seeks Lauren out at her hotel, the pop star decides to let her stick around. Does the bisexual Lauren have designs on Lucie? Or is she playing with fire by letting a dangerous fan into her inner circle?

Director Emmanuelle Bercot clearly wants to explore exactly what a fan gets from her idol--and, in turn, what the idol can draw from her fan--but I found myself far too distracted by the implausibility of the scenario, which plays like bad fan fiction come to life. Lucie is clearly deranged (her nose bleeds in the presence of her idol, and she babbles on, slack-jawed, about Lauren's "purity"), and yet she's easily welcomed into Lauren's life, with bodyguards, managers, and ex-boyfriends all lining up to confide in this teen yokel. It's not until she's enticed to go swimming in the nude with Lauten that the other characters finally start worrying about Lucie's welfare. By then, you won't care.

More substantive is 3 Needles, which explores, in three separate stories, the tragic ways HIV can be passed on in different parts of the world. In China a blood collector (Lucy Liu) unwittingly unleashes a plague she has no name for, while in Canada an HIV-positive porn actor cheats on his STD tests, recklessly infecting the women he performs with. Finally, in South Africa three nuns fall victim to AIDS-stricken local men who believe that by raping a virgin, they can cure their condition.

It's grim stuff, to be sure, filmed with impressive Canadian austerity by director Thorn Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden), who nevertheless manages to deliver some high camp to the proceedings just when the film needs it most. Would you believe, for instance, that under two of those nuns' wimples are gay faves Sandra Oh and Chloe Sevigny? Or that classy Stockard Channing, as the porn actors morn, graphically fucks an HIV-positive tub of lard and sucks blood from her son's arm to pull off a life insurance scam?

Still, these bits are just window dressing for Fitzgerald's real question: Why can't the institutions we give so much to--governments, religions--come together to fight a common enemy in HIV/AIDS? Are the people in power, the people we rely on, taking advantage of us when we need them the most? It's a tough question, and in lieu of an answer all I've got is what Ashley Judd says in Come Early Morning, breaking down after that moment with the pastor: "It's not fair."

CINEPHILE | Kyle Buchanan
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Author:Buchanan, Kyle
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Dec 5, 2006
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