It Doesn’t Happen When You’re Staying Still: A Conversation with Lauren Wolkstein

by Henry Giardina

Behind the Scenes: Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff

A younger man and an older man travel through America on the heels of tragedy, one half in love with the other, both heading for trouble. In Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff’s film “The Strange Ones,” ambiguity, tragedy, and a teenager’s growing sense of sexuality combine to create a strange, heady brew. Part queer road trip film, part thriller, “The Strange Ones” is a film that plays with the notion of absolute truth, leaving audiences questioning what they’ve seen, and what actually came to pass.

I spoke with filmmaker Lauren Wolkstein about how she and Radcliff came to craft one of the most powerful, if understated, queer films of the year.

So you just got back from Sundance. Did you see anything that blew your mind?

Lauren Wolkstein: Yes. I saw “We the Animals.” I thought it was just a masterpiece. I don’t use that word lightly. It just blew me away: It’s this coming of age story of these three brothers and one is slowly realizing he’s gay.

Is this based on the Justin Torres book?

Yes, it’s adapted from the book. Beautiful film.

It’s looking like it’s going to be a good year for queer film.

Yeah, which is great. Because it should be. Every year should be.

How do you see “The Strange Ones” as fitting into a pre-existing tradition of queer film.

It’s interesting, because Chris (Radcliff) and I don’t really talk about the movie as a queer film, yet it seems so intrinsically queer to me as a movie. Maybe that’s because I am queer, so I see the world through that lens. For me, the film, at the core of it, it’s about this young boy who’s grappling with his own identity and not really knowing what his emotions mean or what sexuality is. He knows that he has this attraction to this older man and is coming to terms with that in the worst circumstances, through tragedy.  I think who we really are comes out during crisis situations, and this film explores this kid’s understanding of the world after this awful thing happens with his family. His life gets turned upside down, and the only person left in his life is this older man, who’s kind of seen as a protector. It’s still questionable whether or not he’s a true protector. I think overall, the idea of him really finding his attraction to this man and not really understanding what that means is where the queerness fits into this movie. There’s not really a word for him in terms of understanding what this relationship is and what it means for him to be attracted to this guy, especially since that’s the least of his worries. So in that sense, I love being able to talk about the queerness of the film, but I feel like it’s interesting because that hasn’t really been talked about with the movie so much. Since it is a mystery, and since there’s all this other underlying ambiguity in the film, and this idea of not really knowing who these characters are throughout the film. That’s kind of where Sam’s headspace is: Not understanding the world or his place in the world. When you’re coming of age as a queer kid, those are the things that you grapple with as well. Growing up and trying to figure out how you are and where you fit into this world.

It’s interesting that it’s a sort of thriller, because it reflects how a lot of people feel when they’re first coming to terms with their sexuality. As if they’re being gaslit.

Right. ‘Am I allowed to feel this way? Do I have permission to feel this way? What does it mean if I feel this way?’ Definitely feeling like an outsider and on the fringes, and not really being part of society. And these two guys on the run already feel like they’re outside of civilization. So it’s that much more isolating.


A lot of people are comparing “The Strange Ones” to other queer road trip films like “My Own Private Idaho” and “Stand By Me.” Do you think there’s something inherently queer in taking to the road?

I love that. I love both those genres, queer cinema and road movies. And so does Chris. And I think combining those two genres is really interesting, because in a way it’s all about self-discovery and self-realization, and that really happens on the road, it doesn’t happen when you’re staying still, it doesn’t happen when you’re settled or stable. It happens when you’re moving forward. I think the film definitely has this sense of transitory states. That’s what we carried with us when we were visualizing the film, this sense of purgatory. The surreality and dreaminess of travelling on the road and not really having a place, which is also married to the queer understanding of not really having a place.

Are there any specific queer films or directors that you find yourself revisiting over the years?

You mentioned “My Own Private Idaho.” Gus Van Sant was a huge inspiration for this movie. We watched “Paranoid Park” over and over in terms of really understanding the teenage experience. Chris and I really wanted to make a movie that didn’t feel like it was adults trying to understand teenagers, but that had a genuine teenage voice. So watching a lot of Gus Van Sant movies about teenagers was really important. For me, personally, I love “Desert Hearts,” the Donna Beach film. That was one of the first queer movies I saw, and it’s also a road trip movie in a way. Also Tom Kalin was our thesis advisor where we both went to film school, and his films “Swoon” and “Savage Grace” left a big impression on us. And “Savage Grace” just had its 10th anniversary in New York. It was great to see that. It’s such an important queer film. Same with “Swoon.” I think those really had an impact on us because they’re amazing films, but also because Tom was a really important advisor to us.

“The Strange Ones” leaves viewers with a lot of questions. Do you have answers for them?

People have a lot of questions. We love that the film evokes that sort of response from people, and we wanted to make a film that was provoking that sort of discussion. At the same time, we don’t want to be giving all the answers away, because we think that takes away from the mystery and the experience of watching the film for a moviegoer. We don’t want to tell them their interpretation is right or wrong. It isn’t. It’s right for them, because they feel that way, and the way they feel is right. It’s not for us to say that the way they feel is wrong. Everyone experiences a movie differently, and the way you experience it is an authentic feeling. We don’t want to say that anyone’s feelings are the right or wrong answer. However, when we crafted the movie, Chris and I were very clear about what the answers were to us, and what the movie meant, and where the movie was going. It’s been interesting for us to be in these Q&As and talk about the movie while still trying to find a way to withhold so that we don’t ruin the experience for an audience. It’s kind of our best kept secret. And it’s really rewarding to hear people say what they feel it means to them, and if it’s in alignment with our own feelings about what it meant.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to in terms of queer films in the next year?

I think it’s really important to have our stories on the screen and to not have it feel like it’s outside the mainstream. I still feel like stories about outsiders and people on the fringes are always going to be fascinating and interesting for me, because I always feel like that’s my place in society, on the outskirts. And that’s an interesting place to be. I always like discovering subcultures that aren’t really talked about. But what’s so exciting for me is the idea that “Call Me By Your Name,” a movie like that, could be seen by everyone, and celebrated by everyone. Including people who aren’t queer. That’s really exciting. So I guess I don’t mean mainstream-mainstream, but this idea of everyone celebrating queer cinema in a way that hasn’t really happened before. I think it really started with “Moonlight.” I’m really excited for more queer stories to be told, films where the central romantic relationship is queer. It’s not seen as odd or weird or different, that’s just what the story is. That’s what I’m looking forward to.


Watch "The Strange Ones" on DIRECTV On Demand here.