It's been 24 hours since Jason Collins came out in his Sports Illustrated cover story, and one of the most gratifying aspects to Collins' story in my mind is how quickly it is passing into the realm of the mundane. That is not to say it's not important or heartening (it's both). Rather, the quotidian nature of the story signifies that a sea change in social perceptions hasn't just happened--it happened a while ago. Now, a coming-out story that a decade ago might have provoked the same flurry as Magic Johnson's HIV announcement is met with a general attitude of: "about time."
So what does this have to do with the Newport Beach Film Festival? Well, for every Sundance or Cannes Film Festival that gets the lion's share of the coverage while showcasing maybe one ten-thousandth of one percent of the indie films made in a given year--the ones that get the glitz, the glamour, the headlines--there's literally thousands more festivals all across the globe brimming with all those other indie gems. And in many ways, they are a far more accurate barometer of our social norms and perceptions. The Newport Beach Film Festival, for example, held in Orange County's premiere upscale beach community, has all the festival accoutrements of its more famous cousin, Sundance: the fancy sponsorships, the red carpets, and frankly, more comfortable theaters. But perusing its selection of films may well give you a better sense of our times. These movies do not necessarily have the high profile presence of "indie darlings" like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the filmmakers behind them are just as much (if not more) in the trenches, filming how we live now, and defining our new normal.
Take for example, The Geography Club, which premiered this past Saturday down in Fashion Island. The twin filmmaking Entin brothers, Gary (the one who directs) and Edmund (the one who writes), have adapted Brent Hartinger's teen novel into an oft-told tale of adolescent angst. In short, a group of young misfits form a club so boring that no one will want to join so they can hang out and just be themselves without enduring the Darwinian social struggle that defines pretty much everyone's high school experience. Of course, the hero of the book just happens to be gay. In fact, he just happens to be a gay athlete in love with the gay captain of the football team, who has just about the most accepting parents you've seen in cinema. That's not to downplay the film's conflict--the team captain in particular struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his identity as a "jock." However, as Gary and Edmund pointed out when I talked to them afterwards, a film made about sexual identity in the 90s might have centered more on this athlete struggling to find acceptance in a close-minded community; now, the more dramatic struggle is about him coming to terms with himself. Or as Gary put it, "It's okay if everybody else in your life is accepting of you; but the most important part of acceptance is you accepting yourself."
And again, the most remarkable thing about The Geography Club is how, in many ways, unremarkable it is. Gary and Edmund weren't trying to make a movie that shocked, or enraged, or fired up its audience--just one that entertained. Their role model was less Gus Van Sant's Milk, than John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. In other words, they're trying to help define the new normal, where teenage homosexuality is as everyday as trying to get laid in high school--dramatic, yes, but universal and relatable. "When two boys show up at the prom, it's still a novelty; even when it's applauded, it's separated," Gary told me, before Edmund chimed in: "I think we need to work to a place where one day, two boys can show up to a prom and it's not even thought about twice."
Smartly, the two brothers are tapping into what films and television--mass-minded entertainment--do best: define what we take for granted. For years, political demagogues have railed against film's power to erode our beliefs and ideals (whatever those were); and in truth, they aren't entirely off the mark. Films have that great soft power of slowly but surely dissolving our prejudices and preconceptions, as they acculturate us to the glacial but inevitable changes in how we as a society live our everyday lives. And if you want to watch that happen in real time, you can do nothing better than head down to Newport Beach, or any of the other film festivals, and catch a film just like The Geography Club (it's showing against Wednesday at 5:45) that attempts to show us how we live now. And maybe it'll make you laugh in the process.