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By far one of the highlights during my first day at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, Emily Johnson’s senior film project for the Savannah College of Art and Design, St. Gertrude, is a gorgeous little film. Right from the beginning, during a sequence that sees a family in mourning, as the grandmother lies dying in bed, you can notice the strong sense of composition and quality of visual aesthetic. The credits then run above a static shot of young Gertrude on the floor of her room, angel wings superimposed onto her back, foreshadowing the conversation about to take place in her Catholic school with a couple of bratty girls asking where her halo is. All angels need a halo, so perhaps Gertrude hasn’t done enough good deeds. Let’s just say the one taking her juice box under the false pretenses of karmic action doesn’t do anything to get her closer to heavenly status.

It is a moment like this that brings St. Gertrude out of the family film tropes it could have easily fallen into. While the moral of the tale is solid and worth being told to the younger generation, the film itself definitely leans more towards adult viewers with its cursing and strip club locale. Gerty wants to do right and earn the halo she desires, but after watching her bus drive away, she begins a journey home that leads to places she really shouldn’t be. All those around her are selfish, from the girls at school, the bouncer at Heaven—a local drag queen strip club—who is too ambivalent to the world to notice an eight year old entering the establishment, and even Gertrude’s own mother, finding it easier to yell over the phone, make racist comments, and blame everyone else but herself, rather than get out there and actively search for her daughter.

Only one person has the kindness and maturity to reach out a helping hand for the girl. The most unlikely of sources, it is Ms. Leroy Brown, the star of Heaven’s drag show, dressed as an angel, who finds it in his heart to treat Gerty as an equal. Rather than shatter her dreams of earning her halo, Bryan Anthony’s Leroy keeps the ruse going by adapting his own life to the fantasy. When the girl asks how he earned his halo, the response of, “you really don’t want to know,” hits home with a big laugh as we adults in the audience can imagine what sexual act he might have performed to get the job at Heaven, and therefore the costume, but also because he diverts the conversation without being inappropriate or pandering to the girl. Not only does he keep the possibility of angels existing alive, but even extends the charade to say that Gerty might in fact be a Saint—just as holy and kind as an angel, yet without the need for wings and halos.

Here he is, her real life guardian angel, bolstering her spirits and showing that other people in the world strive to be just as good as she. Again, though, the film itself has another message, one more inline with the gritty, inner city locations and the people who inhabit them. It’s the bigotry that still exists in the world with Teresa Arnold-Simmons’ portrayal of Gertrude’s mother that soon comes to the forefront. She is a woman who’s narrow-mindedness is so ingrained within her that no matter how happy she is getting her daughter back, the prejudices cause her to forsake the one person willing to help because of the color of his skin and the sexual ambiguity of his wardrobe. Young Stella Sauers is absolutely transcendent as Gertrude, keeping her sense of innocence throughout the adult situations and scary scenes, but it is the final reaction through the window of her home that resonates the most. Watching the interaction between her mother and Leroy finally tears down the rosy sheen that had filtered her world. You just have to hope the influence of an angel such as he will have more of a lasting effect on the girl’s psyche and character than the closed-minded, bitter woman who is her mother.

St. Gertrude 9/10

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photography:
Bryan Anthony and Stella Sauers in St. Gertrude.

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