In the absence of a proper Pride month this year, I’ve found myself hunting down LGBT cinema more than usual. Living through a time like this – severed from a larger, in-person queer community – has seen films such as Saving Face, Weekend and Beach Rats suddenly serve a bigger role in my life. Queer films are typically indie, underpromoted productions – but there is a certain subclass that come and go without making even the faintest buzz. I Am Jonas is one of those: a dark, atmospheric French drama I only stumbled upon because I was desperately looking for something I haven’t watched in Netflix’s LGBT category yet.
The film, a delightful slow-burn, depicts Jonas at two very different points in his life – first as an unhappy, aimless gay man living in the city, and also as an optimistic teenager exploring his sexuality for the first time with Nathan, a wild, carefree new kid. A bulk of the film’s narrative gains momentum through us not exactly knowing what is off with the adult Jonas, or what ended up happening to his first beau. Why does the sight of Nathan’s Gameboy Color spark a painful series of flashbacks? When you reach the conclusion, I Am Jonas effortlessly shifts from being a quiet, coming-of-age film to a larger, more interesting exploration of trauma and memory.
The film’s quiet moments speak the loudest. One of the most touching scenes features Jonas and Nathan sharing an illicit cigarette inside their school’s gym, a palatable sexual tension between them as they break the rules. You can feel a deep sense of connection between them, with a subtext of how hard and difficult such a romance will be in a homophobic 90s French high school. Despite all of the inevitable challenges, the two boys kiss, a thrilling moment. (Can you tell social distance is getting to me?)
It’s frustrating and confusing how little this film has been talked about. The film’s lush, colorful cinematography and focus on toxic masculinity makes it perfect for fans of Xavier Dolan or Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats. And the 90s suburban France setting of Jonas’s teenage scenes makes it catnip for Call Me By Your Name fans longing for a vacation from quarantine. My only guess towards I Am Jonas’s minimal impact could it be not fitting into the ever growing (and much needed) shift towards uplifting queer content on streaming platforms, popularized through Hulu’s Love, Victor, HBO Max’s We’re Here and Betty, and Netflix’s The Half of It.
Without giving too much away, I Am Jonas does soak in the tired and pain-heavy cliches of queer cinema – but, here, I believe these elements are present because they fit into the story director and writer Christophe Charrier felt compelled to tell. The sadness does not feel one-dimensional or rooted in shock value, but more in line with emotional, ripe coming-of-age tales written by Ocean Vuong and Édouard Louis recently. Perhaps an expansion of the LGBTQ’s community’s sadness can occur in tandem with the expansion of our happiness.