Every single travel film that has ever been produced will undoubtedly contain a personal journey of self-discovery or self-acceptance. The exact same could also be said of LGBT cinema.
From a storytelling perspective, LGBT travel films often use a literal journey or adventure to act as a catalyst for characters so they are able to discover something about themselves or accept who they always were. Or painfully realise they cannot run away from their issues or find that travelling makes it worse.
While there aren’t a huge number of LGBT travel films, the examples that are shown here prove that the LGBT and travel genres work together incredibly well. And the personal journeys the characters take are often much more interesting than watching rich, white, straight people ‘find themselves’.
10. Transamerica (Duncan Tucket, 2005)
It’s not the most glamorous or polished film, and it’s a little outdated by today’s standards, but there’s a lot to love about Transamerica. Felicity Huffman portrays Bree, a transgender woman (the film uses transexual but that’s an outdated term) who discovers that she has a 17-year-old son from a previous relationship. After picking him up from an NYC prison, she drives him back to LA whilst pretending to be a Christian Social Worker so she can return in time for her gender reassignment surgery.
Transamerica at the very least casts an actor of an appropriate gender (I’m looking at you, The Danish Girl (2015) and many others) and Huffman is quite exceptional in the role. The characters of Bree and her son, Toby (Kevin Zegers) aren’t particularly easy to like but by the end of the film they have gone through so much together and have both shown such vulnerability you can’t help but root for them. It’s heartwarming to watch a Queer film with a happy ending.
9. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Hollywood films with an LGBT storyline always seem to garner much more attention than any other film during awards season and Brokeback Mountain was no different. Two cowboys, Ennis and Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively) are hired to herd sheep in the mountains of Wyoming for one summer and develop a sexual relationship before parting ways and regressing back to their previous lives.
Brokeback Mountain may not fit the exact description of an LGBT travel film as working in Wyoming for a summer might not count as ‘travelling.’ But it’s clear that being alone together for an extended period of time in a serene and remote part of the world, the men can let go of any shame they’ve been taught surrounding homosexual or bisexuality especially working in such a masculine industry like farming.
8. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997)
Wong Kar-wai brings his unique style of filmmaking to Argentina when gay couple Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Leslie Cheung) travel to South America from Hong Kong in the hopes of saving their toxic relationship. Throughout the film, the couple breaks up and reconcile several times to satiate their loneliness in a foreign country they cannot leave due to lack of funds.
A significant number of films with LGBT characters also have a narrative that ultimately rests on the sexuality of its main characters. Quite refreshingly for a film released in 1997, Happy Together would remain virtually unchanged if the two main characters were in a heterosexual relationship instead of a homosexual one. The couple hopes by leaving Hong Kong and travelling to somewhere new that their problems will miraculously fix themselves but sadly discover that wherever you are in the world, your problems will follow.
7. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
A real breakthrough for Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves star in this beautiful film about belonging and finding your place. Mike (Phoenix) is a hustler suffering from narcolepsy and his friend Scott (Reeves) is also a hustler but is about to inherit a big fortune from his father.
The film takes the friends from Seattle to Oregon where Scott is from, Idaho where Mike grew up and Rome where they hope to find Mike’s estranged mother. Mike may be the main focus and have a more tragic journey, but Scott also goes through a transformation when Mike finally expresses his feelings towards Scott on a trip together and they aren’t reciprocated. My Own Private Idaho makes a poignant observation about male friendships and how hard they are to salvage when anything other than heterosexual behaviour is expressed through either friend.
6. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994)
One of the most ostentatious and successful films to be produced in the land down under, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert might have been progressive at the time but hasn’t kept up to today’s standards of wokeness. But this film is still a celebration of queer culture whilst simultaneously honouring the vast and impressive Australian landscape.
Anthony (Hugo Weaving) is a drag queen, and a gay man, who accepts a job performing in the remote town of Alice Springs. He enlists fellow gay drag queen Adam (Guy Pearce) who is notably more flamboyant than Anthony and the third member of their drag act, Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a transgender performer. They drive across the Australian outback in a bus named Priscilla. The desolate landscape and unforgiving locals mean the threesome is very much out of their comfort zone and have to deal with more prejudice and abuse than they would ever receive back home in a metropolitan city like Sydney.
One key theme that may get overlooked from this Aussie comedy is how Guy Pearce’s gay man berates Terance Stamp’s character as trans. Those outside the LGBT community may not fully realise that being gay and being trans are two completely different circumstances and some gay people struggle to relate to the trans journey. The film does a great job of highlighting how Guy Pearce’s character is insensitive towards Bernadette because of his lack of understanding towards her but living in a small space like a school bus across the Australian outback helps him appreciate the hardships she overcomes every day.
5. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005)
How could a film set in Montreal in the 1970s with David Bowie and The Rolling Stones featuring heavily on the soundtrack be anything less than a zany chocolate box of sex, drugs and pop culture references? Zac (Marc-André Grondin) is the fourth of five brothers born on Christmas Day, 1960. Due to his unfortunate birth date he feels like he goes unnoticed and when his strong relationship with his dad becomes strained due to the realisation that he is ‘soft’, it’s inevitable Zac grows up to be a teenager trying to stand out and wrestles with the fact that he is sexually attracted to both girls and boys.
The travel part of the film comes later when an altercation with his dad gives Zac no choice but to leave Montreal and go travelling. Even while free to explore a bisexual side of himself outside the confines of his tight-knit community back in Canada, Zac only longs to be accepted by his father and doesn’t appear to enjoy his travels. C.R.A.Z.Y. provides valuable insight into how a bisexual person might suppress one side of their sexuality to remain accepted in a community.
4. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to 2015’s A Bigger Splash caused a great deal of excitement and furore in 2018’s Oscar season. Set in the 1980s somewhere in Northern Italy, Graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) is invited to spend the summer with an academic Professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg and his son Elio (portrayed by the up-and-coming Timothée Chalamet). Over the course of the summer, Elio and Oliver’s relationship blossoms throughout a series of steamy scenes.
Whilst in Italy, Oliver is no longer trapped by the societal expectations or under the same scrutiny he would be subjected to back home in the USA. Elio’s family is multi-cultural, educated and liberal so it’s no surprise he feels free to follow his emotions. The location is incredibly important for this LGBT travel film. By simply stating that the film takes place ‘somewhere in Northern Italy’, this gives the location a fantasy-like element, an air of mystery. As if the location is so beautiful and picturesque (which it is) that anything is possible, even in homophobic 1983.
3. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
As a noted auteur, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s films often reprocess the same stylistic choices, character types and themes. Sexuality and gender, as well as associated themes such as abuse and HIV, are often discussed in his films as they are in All About My Mother.
Manuela (Cecilia Roth) suffers a devastating loss when her son is fatally hit by a car. Losing her son triggers a journey of healing and facing the past as Manuela travels across Spain from Madrid to A Coruña, then to Barcelona to find her son’s father (who is a transvestite prostitute suffering from AIDS) and then eventually back to Madrid. While Manuela’s journey is one of finding closure following the death of her son, the characters in All About My Mother are already aware of their sexuality and gender identity so this film doesn’t explore this theme as other LGBT travel films do.
Instead, LGBT themes are woven into more of a traditional ‘finding myself after tragedy’ travel film narrative, which helps turn this film from a great movie to a phenomenal and important one in the history of Spanish cinema and queer culture onscreen.
2. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Topping the BFI’s list of the best LGBT films of all time, Carol is going to be a difficult film to beat. Set in the gorgeous backdrop of Manhattan in the 1950s, Carol (Cate Blanchett) meets a young sales assistant called Therese (Rooney Mara) while purchasing a Christmas present for her daughter. The pair take every opportunity to meet despite everything else that is going on in their lives.
The ‘travel’ aspect of this LGBT travel film comes when Carol’s ex-husband takes her daughter away to Florida for the holidays and to distract herself, Carol invites Therese to join her on a road trip. While away, they’re given the freedom to explore their growing feelings for each other without the burden of their heterosexual relationships back in New York.
Interestingly, this is the only lesbian film on this list of LGBT travel films. It may seem more common for men to hit the road to address their conflicted feelings but in 2015, we were finally given a female-angle and it’s just as complicated and even more beautiful than we’ve seen in films with similar narratives before.
1. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
The highest box office opening in Mexican cinema history, this coming-of-age slash road trip movie slash LGBT film’s controversy clearly didn’t hinder its success with audiences. There are a lot of themes at play in Y Tu Mamá También and there may be some debate as to whether this is an LGBT travel film, but there’s no denying bi-curiosity is so important to the film’s key turning point.
Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are sexually adventurous teenage boys and best friends who take the opportunity to act as Bachelors when their girlfriends leave on a trip. They meet an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) and convince her to drive with them to a beautiful beach called Heaven’s Mouth, which doesn’t actually exist. Whilst on the road trip, the boys become jealous at one another’s relationship with Luisa and, without wanting to spoil the film too much, there is at least one scene where the boys are sexually active with each other.
As with many other films on this list, the act of leaving your community and venturing into the unknown simultaneously frees something within Julio and Tenoch that enables them to cast aside their former selves and also return as completely changed people. They’re no longer carefree and naïve teenage boys but return as stoic young men which isn’t exactly an improvement.
Written & Compiled by Rebecca Sharp
Your turn – what are your favourite LGBT Travel films?