Union South Marquee presents the “Divine” Reel Love LGBT Film Festival

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The Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Reel Love LGBT Film Festival has only been around for a couple of years. But those years seem like decades in terms of the advancement of gay rights; fitting that the 3rd annual free festival starts Thursday, the day after Illinois became Wisconsin’s third neighboring state to sign gay marriage into law.

But there is much yet to be done, and film plays its role, in telling stories about the lives of gay people — funny stories, sad stories, made-up stories, true stories, powerful stories, silly stories. This year’s four-day festival has an impressive range of films playing at the Union South Marquee, 1308 W. Dayton St. — gay or straight, you’ll find a movie that appeals to you here.

Here’s a rundown of what’s playing Thursday and Friday at the festival — I’ll dig into Saturday and Sunday in a separate post that will go up Saturday morning.

Thursday

Highlight of the day: “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” (9:30 p.m.) — Confession: I was only able to watch about half of this French Canadian drama before my online screener link got severed. So it could go wrong in the second half, but it’s doubtful, given how tightly controlled this tale of two lesbian ex-cons trying to make a new life in remote Quebec is. The couple is bedeviled by a mysterious neighbor with a vendetta and a link to their past, as well as their own insecurities about their relationship. Gee, I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

Also playing:Getting Go: The Go Doc Project” (7 p.m.), a mix of documentary and narrative shot by a young NYC gay couple.

Friday

Highlight of the Day: “I Am Divine” (9:30 p.m.) — Maybe, in retrospect, Divine shouldn’t have eaten the dog poop.

The drag icon’s notorious meal in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” became a stunt that in many ways defined her, one Divine had to overcome in her quest for superstardom and mainstream acceptance. But Jeffrey Schwarz’s engaging documentary “I Am Divine” shows that the performer born Harris Glenn Milstead wasn’t just a shock performer, but a bold, talented and surprisingly complicated individual.

Schwarz’s film shows how Milstead rebelled against his straight-laced Baltimore upbringing, expressing himself through the world of drag and partnering with a rail-thin Waters on his underground films. Waters notes that Divine was the ultimate outsider — Milstead took everything that others hated about himself and exaggerated it times 10. There’s a defiance in those too-tight lame dresses, gigantic swoops of mascara and huge plumes of fake hair. Maybe generations of American outsiders didn’t want to look like Divine — but they wanted to feel like her.

“He didn’t want to be a woman,” one friend emphasizes. “He wanted to be a movie star!” That distinction between drag and transvestitism  (Divine never wore the get-ups offstage) may help explain how willing Divine was to dowdy herself up, to play unglamorous housewives so effectively in Waters’ later films, “Polyester” and the massive hit “Hairspray.” “Hairspray” gave Divine and Waters mainstream attention, and led to Divine being cast as a man on “Married With Children.”

And, then, the night before the first “Married” rehearsal, he died in his sleep of a massive heart attack at the age of 42. Schwarz interviews Waters, “Hairspray” star Ricki Lake and lots of Divine’s friends and colleagues to paint a warm but complicated picture of the man behind the mascara, often unhappy and surprisingly soft-spoken. But the most poignant interviews may be with Divine’s estranged mother — a couple of years before his death, Divine finally reconciled with his parents and came home to Baltimore.

The banner his parents  hung in his old house read “Welcome Home Divine.”

Also playing Friday:Reaching For the Moon” (7 p.m.) tells the true story of poet Elizabeth Bishop’s ’50s love affair with a Brazilian architect, and “Female Trouble” (midnight) one of Divine’s most notorious films with John Waters, plays at midnight.

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