Sundance veteran takes a wild ride with ‘Rotting in the Sun’
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Sundance veteran takes a wild ride with ‘Rotting in the Sun’

Jul 12, 2023

Silva returns with outrageous film that satirizes modern culture




Unless you’re a follower of independent cinema or the international film festival circuit, the name Sebastián Silva may not be familiar to you – yet.

The gay, Chilean-born filmmaker – also known as a musician and illustrator – has enjoyed substantial spotlight on his work over the last decade and a half, starting with a win for Best Film at the 2008 Chilean Pedro Sienna Awards for his debut feature – “La Vida Me Mata” (“Life Kills Me”) – and following up with 2009’s “The Maid.” The latter launched him into the American Indie scene, earning a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; it went on to pick up several other honors, including a Golden Globe nomination, and firmly established him as an up-and-coming young director. Since then, his reputation has lured “Indie favorite” actors like Kristen Wiig, Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman, and Alia Shawkat to star in his films, and he’s garnered more accolades and awards along the way.

Still, the kind of films Silva makes are not exactly the kind that cross easily over into the mainstream, and wider recognition has thus far eluded him. Nevertheless, he remains a festival favorite, having twice returned in triumph to Sundance for premieres of his work, most recently with “Rotting in the Sun,” which debuted at the festival earlier this year. Now set for a limited theatrical release on Sept. 8 before expanding to digital a week later, it just might be the movie that finally gets the multi-hyphenate filmmaker the attention he deserves – though perhaps not for the reasons he might wish.

Directed by Silva from a screenplay co-written with frequent collaborator Pedro Peirano, his cryptically titled film scores points for audacity from its premise alone. Casting himself and real-life social media star Jordan Firstman as fictional versions of themselves, the filmmaker weaves an outrageous stream-of-events narrative that savagely satirizes both the self-obsession and perpetually distracted state of modern culture, simultaneously skewering the business of filmmaking and “content creation” while offering a sharp, darkly humorous commentary on the impact of economic and social class in human experience.

That sounds like a lot to juggle in a single movie, especially one with a less-than-two-hour runtime, but Silva and Peirano’s script manages it deftly with a intricately crafted structure that carries us along through a twisting plot that begins when the fictional Sebastián – nihilistic, misanthropic, and addicted to ketamine and poppers – takes an impromptu trip to a nude gay beach resort on the advice of his best friend (Mateo Riestra). There, he encounters the gregarious and flamboyant Firstman, a fan of his work who aggressively courts him for a closer relationship, both personally and professionally. With his career stalled and his finances drying up, the reluctant Silva agrees to collaborate on a show, and invites Firstman to come and stay with him in Mexico City while they write it.

From there, things don’t go quite the way we expect. Though we’ve been primed for an “opposites-attract” romance, accompanied by a bemusing clash of Silva’s existential bleakness against the life-affirming positivity of his joyously hedonistic counterpart, an unexpected turn of events veers into a new course; rom-com tropes give way to a stark and harrowing mystery, with Silva’s longtime housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra) at the center, and the film becomes a gripping thriller that blends suspense with social commentary and stark surrealism for a wild ride capable of making the heart pound and the head spin. We could say more – other reviewers have, making their jobs easier but spoiling some of the movie’s most electrifying surprises in the process – but to do so would be a disservice both to Silva’s painstaking efforts in crafting the narrative and the viewer’s enjoyment in experiencing it firsthand.

That does make it necessary to “talk around” some things; for instance, we can’t say all the things we’d like about Saavedra – returning to Silva’s fold after playing the title role in “The Maid” – and her performance without giving away key information; rigidly unsentimental, raw with emotions most of us find uncomfortable to watch, the movie hinges on her portrayal of this character, and she owns it completely.

We also can’t say much about the remarkable movement of the story, charted by the script and driven by the skillful, ever-flowing handheld camera approach of cinematographer Gabriel Díaz Alliende, which follows a singular thread of cause-and-effect through a course marked by random occurrence and inevitable consequence and plays out like an elaborate maze of falling dominoes; nor can we go into much detail about the observations the film makes about the divide between the privileged and the underclasses who serve them, who live in such different worlds that even the simplest interactions between them are often complicated by an inability to communicate or understand each other across the gap.

In a more general way, we can certainly talk about the movie’s appreciation for irony; indeed, its most sublime moments are dripping with it, and it provides the undercurrent for the tone of existential absurdism in which Silva steeps his film; for, make no mistake, in this “existential summer” marked by movies like “Asteroid City,” “Barbie,” and “Oppenheimer,” “Rotting in the Sun” fits right in – though, for what it’s worth, its inescapable dread is countered by a kind of humanistic compassion which, though it doesn’t exactly cast everything in a layer of sweetness and light, goes a long way toward leaving our hope for humanity at least somewhat intact.

Lastly, we can talk about the penises. Yes, there are a lot of them, and a few scenes of un-simulated gay sex, too; most of these take place in the early scenes at the resort, and while it would be wrong to say they are irrelevant to the larger purpose of Silva’s movie they certainly are not the point of it, prompting him to admit in a Variety interview that he was “a little bit scared that a lot of people will be centered on the cocks.” Predictably, most reviews (including this one, it appears) and much of the publicity for the film seem angled to let us know they are there.

Ultimately, “Rotting in the Sun” is about much more than cocks, of course; it’s also about much more than the various human pretensions, constructs, delusions, and dysfunctions it both sends up and seems to caution us about. Like all great films, it contains all those things within a larger picture that points toward a more all-encompassing perspective on life – and, admirably, doesn’t try to tell us what to think of it, though it might guide us to a smaller conclusion or two about how we treat each other along the way.

Be warned: though ostensibly a comedy, “Rotting in the Sun” is not a film for the faint-hearted, and it should be noted that it explores themes of suicidal ideation that might be triggering for some viewers.

If you’re not deterred by that – and if your interest is piqued by all the things we couldn’t say – then you are heartily encouraged to watch it at your first opportunity. We guarantee that afterward, you’ll remember the name Sebastián Silva.

‘Every Body’ casts overdue spotlight on intersex lives

D.C. lawsuit claims AARP Services illegally fired gay man

Mexico City hosts LGBTQ, intersex rights conference

Chilean lawmakers reject complaint against gay education minister

Three activists move past childhood dominated by shame




Even within the larger LGBTQIA+ community, intersex people remain something of a mystery for most of us.

That’s not meant to send anybody on a guilt trip; it’s merely an observation hinting at the power of the stigma that has kept intersex stories buried in the dusty cabinets of medical research halls even as the other segments of the queer population have been given increased representation – and with it, the chance to express their truth – in the public sphere. Guided by unquestioned assumptions about “natural” expressions of gender, the scientific and medical establishment has long shrouded the facts around intersex people, often even from the parents of intersex children, as they made autocratic decisions about medical procedures to “correct” what they perceived as nature’s “mistake.” How can someone share their truth with the world if it’s always been kept a secret from them, too?

As laid out in “Every Body,” “RBG” director Julie Cohen’s documentary profile of three prominently visible intersex individuals (now streaming on Peacock after a theatrical release earlier this summer), the answer to that question is that they can only do it by forging a new truth, based in their own experience and independent from the expectations of others.

The film’s three subjects – actor/screenwriter River Gallo (they/them), political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they), and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) have each moved beyond a childhood dominated by shame and secrecy into a thriving adulthood lived as their authentic selves – something only made possible by a choice to disregard medical advice about keeping the reality of their bodies a secret. Now leaders and advocates in a global movement for greater understanding of the intersex community, they share the narratives of the lives that have gotten them there – both the ones that were forced upon them and their families from their birth, and the ones they have written for themselves.

Woven within these profiles is a historical tale about the vastly influential yet little-remembered Dr. John Money, a sex researcher whose views on gender became central to institutionalizing a 1950s-era sensibility into accepted medical thought around intersex people; more specifically, it relates a stranger-than-fiction case of medical abuse under Money’s care, featuring exclusive archival footage from NBC News archives, and exposing the fallacies behind medical protocols that continue to linger, unchecked, years after being resoundingly debunked.

It’s through this wide-view look at the context in which intersex people have historically been framed by doctors and psychiatrists that the film provokes the most vigorous emotional response from audiences, perhaps; the real life-story of David Reimer, subject of the experiment that would eventually discredit Money’s work, is a heartbreaking one, and the footage of the film’s three subjects watching the harrowing interviews the deeply damaged Reimer gave when his story was made public provides some of the movie’s most viscerally moving moments.

Indeed, Cohen’s original concept for the movie was a straightforward exploration of the Reimer case, but after connecting online with Weigel, and through them, with Gallo and Wall, she changed direction. Struck by their commitment to the cause of greater understanding and better medical care for intersex people, she began filming their activism and their day-to-day lives. As she says in her press notes, “What had started as an archival documentary became a film very much set in the present.”

It’s a shift in approach that focuses the movie on transcendence over trauma. Through the inspirational sagas of its three central figures, “Every Body” resoundingly emphasizes the empowerment that comes with taking control of one’s own narrative, and the freedom and forgiveness that can blossom in a more fully self-actualized life than the one they were encouraged or even coerced to accept in their younger years. Watching Gallo’s tender reminiscences with their mother, or hearing Wall’s empathetic acceptance of his now-deceased parents’ choices for him in the face of what they knew or were told, is a welcome contrast to the often strident dialogue we are growing ever more accustomed to encountering around such matters in the public conversation; at the same time, there’s a deeply satisfying thrill that comes in seeing Weigel stymie a Texas Legislature or shut down a visibly shaken Steven Crowder – the controversial conservative comedian and pundit whose signature schtick spawned all those notorious “Change My Mind” memes – on his own platform by challenging their simplistic conceptions about the biology of gender, reminding us of how formidable we can be when we speak from a truth gained through lived experience.

It’s scenes like these that overcome the dark weight of a less-enlightened past to help the documentary move into the more hopeful light of today’s active struggle for something better. Having claimed, at last, the autonomy over their own body that was denied them as children, these three are ready to stand and fight for a future in which others like them will never have to face what they and countless intersex people throughout history have had to experience. When “Every Body” moves, finally, into the here and now, it drops us into a community made up of individuals who have found each other in spite of the secrecy, whose willingness to share their truth with each other and with their allies has changed the way a generation of intersex individuals learn to think of themselves. It takes us to a rally designed to bring an end to the age of secretive surgeries performed without consent on individuals too young to decide for themselves, channeling the lessons learned and experience gained from the queer and trans rights movements that came before them to work for a cultural shift toward greater acceptance, inclusion, and understanding. It leaves us feeling assured that the oft-horrific mistreatment and forced conformity of past decades might finally be replaced by the kind of compassionate and informed guidance that everyone deserves when it comes to decisions impacting the very core of their identity. Carefully-structured but organically-flowing, and infused with a sense of purpose that avoids the performative grandstanding of culture warfare to find the joy that lies behind the most genuinely persuasive movements for change, Cohen’s documentary makes its statement by leaving us on an “up” note.

Unfortunately, like most such documentaries coming into the world now, as virulent antagonism against all segments of the queer community grows ever more ominous, the optimistic tone that may have seemed appropriate at its inception can’t help but feel a bit out of step. That’s not a flaw in the film, but a gauge of a time that feels a little more precarious than most of us are comfortable with, and when our culture’s long-standing obsession with an “either/or” binary construct of gender – made painfully obvious by the film’s opening montage of elaborate “gender reveal” party stunts – looks more and more like an immovable wedge.

Still, current moods notwithstanding, the fight must go on, and “Every Body” is the kind of movie that can inspire even the most weary warriors to push forward against the tide of closed-minded bigotry that seems so bent on engulfing our nation.

For that reason alone, it comes with our highest recommendation.

‘I wanted to humanize the transgender experience’




It’s probably rare for a film review to begin with a news report about a real-world crime, but “Kokomo City” is a rare film.

On April 18, a transgender woman known as Koko Da Doll was fatally shot in Atlanta. She was the third Black transgender sex worker killed in the city – and the 10th trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence in the US – to that date in 2023.

It was a story that made limited headlines, but comparatively far more (unfortunately) than usually accompany the killings of Black transgender sex workers; that’s because Koko – whose “non-performance” name was Rasheeda Williams – was one of four trans women, from both Atlanta and New York City, profiled in the Sundance-honored documentary “Kokomo City,” which went into limited theatrical release on Aug. 4. and is now available via digital and VOD. The film, which was executive produced by boundary-breaking queer multi-hyphenate talent Lena Waithe (among others), offers a remarkably candid, completely unfiltered, and entirely non-judgmental portrait of its subjects as they share the experiences and observations that have occurred on the job.

In the film, Koko – along with fellow sex workers Daniella Carter, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver – provide extensive interviews in which they “get real” about the perspective on life bestowed upon them by their work. Sometimes horrifically shocking, sometimes unflinchingly blunt, their anecdotes paint a portrait of society seen from the bottom up; but it’s a far cry from the hand-wringing and moralizing some might expect to accompany a film about such a subject, instead giving these four fully self-aware individuals a chance to sound off about all the hypocrisies and social stigmas that define and constrain our culture’s view of sex in general, and queer sex in particular, while revealing the intelligence and strong sense of self – and yes, the strong sense of humor, too – necessary to survive as a member of one of the world’s most widely disregarded classes of human being. It’s transgressive in a way that many will find refreshing, even thrilling, but others will find appalling.

As much as we might wish otherwise, most of us are likely to believe that the audience for “Kokomo City” probably won’t include the people who most need to see it. Those who are predisposed to restrictive judgments around sex work and trans people are not likely to add it to their streaming queues – a shame if only for the loss of their own opportunity to recognize and empathize with the humanity of people they would otherwise demonize in their imaginations. That doesn’t matter, however, to the movie’s director – two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith, who made history as the first trans woman cast on a primetime unscripted TV show.

For her feature film directorial debut, Smith aimed to elevate her subject’s voices not just as an expression of queer experience, but of the wider Black experience, as well. Couch-surfing with friends over a three-year period as she collected the material for her movie, she was concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the story these four women had to tell. In its final form, her documentary is a testament to individual truth within a dichotomy that has no space for it; the Black community as a whole, itself ostracized and oppressed within mainstream culture while subject to the strict norms of acceptability built into its own traditions and heritage, has long held a particular stigma against queer sexuality. As Smith offers in her press notes, “So many of our Black children grow up afraid and confused because of traditional values or admissible violence against them, sometimes leading to death. [It’s] a conversation that’s been avoided for many, many years [that] has now taken center stage.”

To hear her four interviewees tell it, those hard-and-fast-beliefs disappear quickly behind closed doors – but even so, in public, the prejudice holds fast. Indeed, Smith offered five other directors the opportunity to helm the project, and all of them balked before she decided to do it herself.

“I went out and bought a camera and a nice lens and filmed it myself.,” she says. “No assistant, no lighting person, no editor. Just the vision of a truth.”

Part of that truth, she says, was “to create a film that people outside of the LGBTQ+ community could be drawn to,” but she also wanted to be authentic in her presentation of these women. She was asking them to be real, so she had to be, too.

“At the time of [the film’s] conception,” she says, “there was a lot of transgender content with this narrative I call the ‘red carpet narrative.’ It’s when a fierce PR team puts a trans woman in a fabulous gown and has her speak like a pageant finalist. That’s not our real experience.”

She wanted to present something different. “I wanted to feel something untampered with. Something that looks like my actual experience. Something that we can all find ourselves in. Something without all the rules and laws that separate us as people of color. I wanted those walls down. In this film, I was able to share the private lives of four transgender sex workers who are never represented publicly. I offered the girls freedom. Freedom to talk like us. Look like us. Don’t worry about the politics. Forget about makeup. Don’t worry about calling your glam squad today. Just tell your story. I wanted to humanize the transgender experience.”

Captured in stark-but-stylish black-and-white, “Kokomo City” does exactly that. Putting the spotlight on four women who are anything but the so-called “norm” and who are accustomed to having their voices silenced, or at least ignored, Smith gives us a raw-yet-deeply considered perspective that challenges the audience by taking them out of their comfort zone, yet never ceases to be entertaining.

To be sure, there is an almost a joyous vibe to “Kokomo City,” no doubt largely due to the freeing, cathartic sense of unburdening its subjects must have felt in getting the chance to share their truth with the world.

Sadly, that joy must now be forever tempered by the knowledge that Koko, whose life shines so brightly from the screen, has been lost to us – who, though authorities say there is no evidence her death was motivated by homophobia or transphobia, is nevertheless yet another victim of the deeply embedded hate and violence that haunts our culture and makes movies like this one seem so very, very precious.

At the same time, hearing her voice ring among the others in Smith’s wildly entertaining documentary – which won the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Award and has gone on to win acclaim at other festivals including the Berlinale and LA’s OutFest – gives it an even greater sense of urgency, a higher imperative to present both the beauty and vulnerability of trans women, and turns the film into a celebration of her unquenchable light.

It also introduces Smith as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and we are excited to see where she takes us next.

An insightful voice enhanced by artfully cinematic approach to material




Before nonbinary author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 novel “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” was even in print, Amazon wanted to buy the movie rights.

It’s easy to see why. It’s a steamy-but-sweet same-sex romance between a British Royal and the son of the American president that takes place in a world where that president is a woman. Yes, it’s all optimistic fantasy – which is, of course, the whole appeal. Isn’t that what the romance genre is all about?

The book went on to become a bestseller, winning honors at the 11th Annual Goodreads Choice Awards, and Amazon went on to make its screen adaptation, hiring Tony-winning queer playwright Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) not only to co-author the screenplay (with Ted Malaher), but to make his debut as a feature film director. The finished product, which drops on the streaming giant’s platform Aug. 11, validates that choice.

Admittedly, the premise evokes one of those much-maligned Hallmark movies; First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is handsome, charismatic, and popular with the American public; across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) — second in line for the British throne — is equally adulated. Naturally, they can’t stand each other, but after an encounter at a royal wedding that snowballs into an embarrassing incident, they are both under order to enact “damage control” by pretending to be friends. Forced to spend time together, their animosity soon turns to something else, and they are drawn into a deepening romance that might not only threaten the re-election hopes of Alex’s mom (Uma Thurman) but shake the traditions of the British monarchy to their ancient core.

It would be easy enough to dismiss it all as mindless, trope-driven hokum, or to take a perspective from which the whole thing seems like just another iteration of some tried-and-true yet unrealistic “fairy tale,” if not for the insightful voice that is preserved and enhanced by Lopez’s artfully cinematic approach to the material.

Claiming advantage of the change in medium, Lopez achieves a vision of McQuiston’s novel which captures the essence that has made classics of all the “great” cinematic rom coms. Blending the political idealism and social equity that elevated the screwball classics of the golden age with the elegance and style of the saucier “sex farces” that would come later, he crafts the story by blending the traditional technique-based conceits of old with the form-bending embellishments of the contemporary age; tropes and expectations are turned on their ear by unexpected twists that emphasize modern understanding over social constructs about “normalcy” and the immutability of tradition.

As an aesthetic, Lopez’s collaboration with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (“The Hunger,” “Batman and Robin”) creates a cinematic manifestation of the novel that fully embraces both the heart-on-its-sleeve idealism of those screwball classics — which were always as much about challenging societal norms as they were about escapism — and the stylistically elegant romances of the 1950s, both the overwrought socially relevant melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the racy comedies epitomized by the effervescent Doris Day/Rock Hudson gem, “Pillow Talk,” in a cinematic presentation awash with both the colorful palette and near-surreal visual nuance that marks all the great absurdist comedies of modern cinema history.

For make no mistake, the film adaptation of “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is a gently absurdist comedy in the classic sense. On one level, it makes its points through the sheer ridiculousness of some of its farcical conceits; on another, it drives them home through a plot which dares to suggest that a mere reframing of our expectations is enough to render most of our objections to change antiquated, if not entirely irrelevant. What could be a more relatable way to get that across than a story about two people who realize that being in love is important enough to swim against an overwhelming tide? Even non-queer people can understand what it’s like to be attracted to someone to whom you’re not allowed to be attracted.

These themes, however, though they are there for the taking by anyone who connects the dots to find them, never threaten to overpower the movie’s sentimental tone. Unabashedly idealistic, shamelessly geared to trigger all our warmest, feel-good-i-est emotional reactions and reinforce our notions about the inevitable power of love, it plays whole-heartedly into hope and humanism with its insistence on honoring the imperative of inner experience over the imposed demands of an outside world. In today’s atmosphere of scrupulously-managed public persona, such a seemingly-basic but mostly-disregarded outlook on life feels not only refreshing but subversive.

All of this is to drive home the point that while “Red, White, and Royal Blue” might appear to be nothing more than a shallow and simplistic emanation of pop culture, it contains more than enough solid material to make it worthwhile for those who might normally eschew such idealized, borderline-elitist tales of privilege in which a stigma that is unavoidable within most class hierarchies can be overcome thanks to fame, economic advantage, and (yes, let’s admit it) attractiveness. Lopez, bringing his own queer experience to the fore, manages to convey the authentic queer perspective of McQuiston’s book, and that’s what distinguishes his adaptation of the novel from the typical. None of what we hear, see, or feel is mere “lip service” – it all comes from a genuine perspective in which “why not?” is a valid answer to the question of whether such things are even possible.

From our standpoint, Lopez is the true star of the film, but kudos are definitely deserved by the entire cast, headed by the impossibly beautiful (yet entirely relatable) Perez and Galitzine, whose considerable surface charms are given weight by the emotional truth of their performances and the tangible charge of their onscreen chemistry. Also notable is an awards-worthy supporting turn by Sarah Shahi, as an eyes-on-the-prize deputy chief-of-staff who does her best to manage the political fallout from Alex and Henry’s clandestine affair, and a deliciously ironic appearance by Stephen Fry — second perhaps to only Ian McKellen as Britain’s foremost vocally “out” queer actor — as a tradition-embracing King of England. Thurman, bringing the weight of her “star presence” to the role, makes for a more-than-sympathetic mother (and president) in a performance that plays against tropes to find a human element that transcends concerns of reputation and decorum.

Of course, even if all that praise arises from a genuine appreciation of the film’s artistic prowess, it doesn’t mean that “Red, White, and Royal Blue” is for everyone. If you’re not a fan of rom coms in general, or films that embed idealized hope into their messaging for the presumed sake of reinforcing populist sentiment, it still might not be your cup of tea.

But if you like movies that imagine the world as it could be, rather that the world as it is, it’s a surprisingly welcome treat that may not be as guilty a pleasure as it seems.

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Jordan FirstmanSebastián Silva“Rotting in the Sun,”Sean Saifa WallAlice Roth WeigelRiver GalloKoko Da Doll“Kokomo City”Taylor Zakhar PerezNicholas Galitzine