WHY IS IT AMERICANS HAVE SUCH A HARD TIME making a decent gay film? The British and French, in particular, routinely produce insightful takes on the alternate pains and joys of sexual discovery. The American independent scene, meanwhile, seems incapable of coming up with something that doesn't play like a Very Special Episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (Hollywood product, not exactly brimming with flavor in heterosexual concerns, is even weaker when dealing with gay themes).

The recent Edge of Seventeen, while well observed and laudable in its sometimes painful depiction of misguided emotional intimacy, eventually runs out of steam with the realization that it has nothing new to say. The young protagonist comes out, gets hurt a few times, and finds solace in a gay bar. There's no original point of view, and certainly no epiphany of personal reflection. Most recent gay work, in fact, like Edge and Defying Gravity, eschew revelations for a rote rundown of events.

Imported films are deft in placing sexual awakening in a larger political or social context: There's more to being gay than just Being Gay. The British Get Real takes the familiar high school setting and broadens it with the awareness that coming out is only part of a daunting leap into adult society. André Téchiné's Wild Reeds had teen characters, including a boy struggling with his homosexuality, each grappling with their identities in a post-Algerian War French town. Missing from the majority of U.S. releases is this story's rich knowledge of how the way we view ourselves informs how we affect the world. No homegrown film--with the possible exception of the lighthearted Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss--has been able to come to the conclusion that coming out is something you owe everybody else.

It's telling that nothing made here has yet to better the late Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances, an independent film now in its second decade. Made on a small budget in 1986, Sherwood's film is quiet, funny (with knockout performances by a young Steve Buscemi and Richard Ganoung, from Billy's), and looks at people in a sometimes heartbreaking way that casually embraces our differences, but illuminates our common humanity. It's a gem that takes its gayness at face value, then moves on to more valuable concerns.

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