Haley Joel Osment and Ashley Rickards in a scene from "Sassy Pants"… (Edward Chen, Outfest LBGT…)
Family dysfunction is a central theme in Outfest's 30th anniversary lineup, an indication that the maturing film festival has moved well past its early explorations of homosexuality and into more mainstream entanglements.
"That's a sign of how far we've come," said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of the top-tier lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival. "These aren't coming-out stories. I think anyone can relate to issues with a parent, sibling or partner."
This year's festival, opening Thursday, will spotlight 147 films at six local venues. They were directed by a blend of new and veteran filmmakers of all backgrounds, American, Chilean and German heritage among them. As a group, their films blur the distinctions between what's supposedly gay and straight, abnormal and normal, mainstream and indie.
"The bottom line is the films are good," Schaffer said. "You can't label them specifically 'gay' films because they show real, daily issues in diverse aspects of life." Among the highlights:
"Sassy Pants" (7 p.m. Saturday, Director's Guild of America 1) follows troubled teen Bethany (MTV's"Awkward"star Ashley Rickards) as she moves in with her father and bonds with his much younger boyfriend (former child star Haley Joel Osment).
Cheryl Dunye, longtime writer and director of LGBT-themed films, returns with "Mommy Is Coming" (8:30 p.m. Sunday, REDCAT), a close-up of a mature lesbian relationship at a crossroads and under the pressure of a meddling mother's visit.
"Gayby" (9:45 p.m. Saturday, DGA 1) quickly becomes awkward when two best friends, gay Matt and straight Jenn, try to reproduce together non-romantically.
Homosexual characters are complex, Schaffer said — and therefore much more realistic than the once prevalent "girlie" or "butch" Hollywood stereotypes.
It's what Larry Horne envisioned when he, along with four colleagues, founded the no-boundaries festival as a UCLA doctoral film student in 1982. "People were really hungry for gay and lesbian films," said Horne, who now lives in New York, "and there were films and images we wanted people to see."
Part of the 30th anniversary celebration includes a re-creation of the first Outfest, which premiered on the UCLA campus as the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference. The original three films — "Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man," "Making Love" and "Taxi Zum Klo" — will be re-screened for a new generation of moviegoers.
"It was a very thrilling experience but challenging at the time," Horne said, recalling early behind-the-scenes work. "We had to find the right audience, venue — and look for corporate sponsors. It was nothing like it is today."
Today's festival puts an emphasis on glamour, he said. Outfest, like its bigger, flashier counterparts at Sundance and Cannes, has become a media event of sorts, a rotation of red carpets and high-profile parties.
"I don't want the history and meaning to get lost in the swirl of activity," Horne said. "People need to see the meaning through the swirl."
This year's documentaries, which include productions by former 'N Sync singer Lance Bass, award-winning journalist David France and HBO-backed Jeffrey Schwarz, explore watershed events in gay history.
On opening night, Schwarz's "Vito" — a cinematic portrait of "The Celluloid Closet" author Vito Russo, who is best known for fighting offensive portrayals of gays in film — takes center stage at the opening gala on Thursday. Russo's life is told through old film clips and anecdotes from friends.
"He's a legendary figure," Schaffer said. "His story is tremendously important. 'Vito' and other true stories this year are very powerful."
In his first documentary, France, who reported on HIV issues at the onset of the epidemic, mixes investigative journalism with emotional filmmaking. "How to Survive a Plague" (7 p.m. Wednesday, DGA 1) is the end product of 13 months of digging through 33 personal film archives of activists who fought widespread prejudice in New York's Greenwich Village in the early days of the virus.
The story will surprise, France says. Footage weaves a narrative of grass-roots triumph, of David facing Goliath with an upbeat, good-natured fighting style.
"I wanted to correct what I perceived to be a historic error," France said. "AIDS in the public consciousness was perceived as a terrible tragedy for victims, and a monstrous ailment was laying claim to a community. But more than that was how a community responded to it: with brilliance, power, a sense of humor."
For more information on the festival and showtimes, visit http://www.outfest.org.