Utah Film Center Damn These Heels 2021: Finding empathy in difficult reunions: See You Then and Ma Belle, My Beauty solid additions to feature narrative lineup

Two excellent queer cinema entries — one which received its premiere at this year’s SXSW festival and is receiving its Utah premiere and the second which made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — highlight the solid feature-length narrative sections for the Utah Film’s Center’s 18th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival. Coming from different perspectives, both films produce articulate epiphanies about the struggles to find and communicate empathy in intimate relationships, which are marked by separation and later reconciliation in some form.

Both films will be available for streaming during the festival, which runs July 9-18. See You Then also will have an in-person screening July 10 at 7 p.m. in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Utah Review screened both of the films in advance of the festival for the following reviews:

Ma Belle, My Beauty, directed by Marion Hill, starring Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper-Cunningham.

See You Then

The two-hander chamber piece is a marvelous narrative format. Some of the finest examples of two-handers include Educating Rita, Tangerine, The Sunset Limited and My Dinner with Andre.

Mari Walker, who has excelled in the short film format in recent years, steps impressively into the feature-length category with See You Then, which received its premiere earlier this year at SXSW and is receiving its Utah premiere at Damn These Heels.

The film takes place on a single night, a wisely chosen timeframe for setting up a tight story arc that traverses a lot of territory in 74 minutes. Kris (Pooya Mohseni) reunites with Naomi (Lynn Chen) for dinner and drinks, their first meeting a decade after their relationship ended suddenly. There have been dramatic changes since they last saw each other face-to-face. Kris, who works as a cyber security expert, is transgender. Naomi, a performance artist who also teaches at a nearby college, is married with children.

Mari Walker.

The exposition in the first 15 minutes offers subtle foreshadowing cues, which become significant as the film’s tension builds to stunning realizations for both characters. The tension and emotional pain of the sudden end to their relationship are evident from the first moments when they meet after many years. Walker, who is transgender, adeptly sets the pace in controlling the suspense that intensifies gradually, as both characters dissect and revisit memories of their relationship. No doubt, authenticity of representation anchors the film’s strengths in numerous regards, including Mohseni, who also is transgender, in her portrayal of Kris.

Chen and Mohseni achieve near-perfect chemistry to the point that the viewer believes that, indeed, they actually are Kris and Naomi, characters whom Walker and co-writer Kristen Uno have fleshed out wonderfully with the familiar complexities of human emotions and nature in a refreshing constellation of perspectives. See You Then incorporates many familiar observations about displays of masculinity, male privilege in the career world, the disappointments of online dating, and the pressures of parenting on the durability of marriage. But, the contexts Walker and Uno have drawn in the script make these factors ultimately critical to the challenges Kris and Naomi confront in trying to close what was an extraordinarily complicated and emotionally draining chapter in their respective lives. 

Given how the climax accelerates in the last chapter of the film, viewers likely will process and discuss the film’s story contours for a good bit after the final credits have rolled. For viewers, a recommended companion piece to See You Then is Meredith Morran’s short film The Letter, which focuses on the practical challenges of how people analyze the communication dynamics in their relationships and struggle with giving each other messages and the meanings they want. Morran’s short is receiving its world premiere at Damn These Heels.

See You Then, directed by Mari Walker, starring Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Walker says that she and Uno spent a lot of time thinking about authenticity in front of and behind the camera, especially as the script was driven principally by character rather than by plot. “We approached a lot of questions about the history of these characters as well as how our own respective histories define us,” she explains. “Among the themes we thought about were what does motherhood mean to us and the sacrifices to make that happen.”

As for the incredibly convincing chemistry both actors achieved in portraying the connections between the two characters, Walker says that Mohseni and Chen “constructed their own private artistic space,” by imagining respective histories which they shared only with each other and then those dynamics were transferred to their on-camera performances.

Walker and Uno wrote the script with the intention of having it filmed exclusively at night, not particularly the logistical preference many production crews typically want to pursue. “If we would have set it as continuing into the next day, there would have been too many excuses for particular interfaces not to happen so it was necessary to set it at night,” she says. The shooting took place on nights over three weeks, where the call time usually started at 3 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m. Walker says the biggest challenge was finding extras for scene locations, which include a restaurant and bar. “It was a bananas time to work for sure,” she explains, adding that occasionally “it led everybody to be really loopy but everyone also was having fun with each other and that enhanced the environment captured in the scenes.” 

Ma Belle, My Beauty

The difficulties and hesitations of reunion receive another treatment in Marion Hill’s Ma Belle, My Beauty, a film that premiered last winter in Sundance’s NEXT program. 

Outstanding production values will make viewers yearn for planning a visit to the French vineyards, a natural complement to the sophisticated storyline of a polyamorous relationship that avoids preaching or proselytizing on the moral and romantic implications of it. Recently married, Bertie (Idella Johnson), a singer, and Fred (Lucien Guignard), a musician who sees great promise in their artistic collaboration, enjoy the halcyon days of their home in the southern French region. But, behind the placid surroundings, there are nagging concerns. Fred is worried his dreams of their forthcoming tour will be transformed for the worse, as Bertie is in an artistic rut and does not see the passion for motivating her to perform. Fred contacts Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), Bertie’s former girlfriend and the person they shared in their relationship prior to moving to France. 

When Lane arrives, Bertie is visibly annoyed by her presence. Few words are spoken but their nonverbal communication and gestures reveal a good deal without interrupting the curiously sanguine pace of the film and its settings. Later, when Noa, a former soldier in the Israeli army who now is a painter, shows up at a dinner party and captures Lane’s attention, Bertie, as expected, becomes jealous. Meanwhile, Lane often speaks impulsively, barely if ever taking a moment to filter or edit the words that she is about to vocalize. Fred is obsessed with restoring what was a precarious emotional balance in the first place, with the hope that Bertie will be satisfied enough to join him on the band’s tour. Noa’s arrival in the story also is not a one-off moment, proving that her emotional intelligence might be the most mature among all four principal characters.

Thus, the actors’ performances in all four main characters succeed in averting soap opera melodramatic tropes and instead flesh out the beguiling potential of ideal character chemistry. And, the pastoral French surroundings are spiced up with healthy doses of sexual energy that are not gratuitous or clichéd. It is a visceral feast, a testament to the best dimensions of Damn These Heel’s programming brand. A bonus is the outstanding soundtrack composed by Mahmoud Chouki, 37, a master guitarist and composer from Morocco but who now lives and works in New Orleans. Chouki’s musical palette serves beautiful parallels in the background story of Fred and Bertie, the musicians at the center of the film’s narrative.

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