The Mattachine Family is now showing at Outfest, Los Angeles.
If anyone ever tells you life is like travelling down an empty highway, they are lying. Life is far more like a rocky mountain path. As we walk, we face sudden obstacles, uncertain detours and a sky that can go from bright sunshine and stunning vistas to low clouds and torrential rain in a heartbeat. We know there is no turning back as we work our way up to the summit in the hope that we find ourselves along the way. For the LGBTQ+ community, this path is often even more rocky as we navigate self, family and community acceptance, our notions of self-worth, love and belonging butting up against a heteronormative world that often others us.
Andy Vallentine’s The Mattachine Family understands that our personal identities, values, desires and needs change during our walk of life and that our identity as LGBTQ+ individuals also shifts. Based on conversations Vallentine and his husband had around the nature of fatherhood for gay men, The Mattachine Family boldly asks several pertinent questions: How has our fight for equality changed our personal goals and aspirations? Why do we, as gay men, often feel the need to conform to a set social image? And, How does parenthood change our personal, social and community identity?
These are big questions and ones that have only recently become the privilege of many gay couples. But they are also questions that continue to divide our community as it changes before our eyes. Some will argue that gay people have succumbed to a heteronormative life that saw us as outsiders for years. While others state that the fight for equality leads to change, and that change means that gay life and community identity must move forward. The Mattachine Family never attempts to provide answers to these community debates. But it does shine a light on the love gay couples can offer a child and the need to reevaluate our community’s notions of being gay in the 21st Century. However, as with many films exploring these Western ideals, The Mattachine Family doesn’t fully reflect the differing gay experience based on socioeconomic status and power. Vallentine’s film sits firmly in the gay middle-class experience, and here it suffers its most significant flaw and weakness as it fails to reflect the complexities of gay life in the 21st Century, where many are still forced to hide, and equality does not stretch to all corners of our global community.
Thomas (Nico Tortorella) and his husband Oscar (Juan Pablo Di Pace) relationship dramatically shifts when their foster child returns to his birth mother. For Oscar, this change leads him to throw himself back into his work as an actor, spending large amounts of time away from home, while for Thomas, it raises questions about his direction in life and the hole left by the child he cared for. While Oscar wanted to be a dad when they started fostering, Thomas wasn’t sure. But now, as their fostering commitments end, the tables have turned, as Thomas attempts to build a permanent family while Oscar is less than enthused.
The title of Vallentine’s film is inspired by The Mattachine Society, a gay rights organisation founded by Harry Hay in 1948. The exploration of found family and the safety of our self-made societies of friendship and support is assured, as are discussions on how these groupings and circles change as people meet partners and find new family bonds. Thomas is surrounded by his close friends, two of which Leah (Emily Hampshire) and her wife, Sonia (Cloie Wyatt-Taylor), are going through IVF treatment. Yet, despite his friends’ support and his partner’s love, losing his role as a dad eats away at him, with his found family unable to offer all he needs as he attempts to climb the steps to a more permanent role as a loving father. Here Nico Tortorella beautifully captures the internal conflict of a man caught between a need for self-actualisation and a loving relationship now drifting apart due to his wishes. At the same time, Vallentine’s direction allows space to explore how identity and belonging are never fixed but constantly moving like the undercurrents of a mighty ocean.
While The Mattachine Family sometimes oversimplifies some of the themes it raises and often falls into the trap of exploring the gay experience through a largely middle-class lens, I defy anyone not to be touched by its core narrative and performances. Vallentine’s film isn’t afraid to ask how equality has changed the gay experience. It proudly affirms that happiness, family and parenthood are no longer the privilege of heterosexual couples but a human right for us all. Some may argue the film’s end is too comfy and bright, but surely we deserve the same happy ending straight people have enjoyed for years.
While The Mattachine Family sometimes oversimplifies some of the themes it raises and falls into the trap of exploring the gay experience through a largely middle-class lens, I defy anyone not to be touched by its core narrative and performances.