There’s a uniqueness to Desire Lines that writer/director Jules Rosskam (and co-writer Nate Gualtieri) implements to set the film as an open line of communication regarding the LGBTQIA+ community and their placement within their own culture. A narrative-driven drama that combines documentary pieces and talking head confessionals, the film’s hybrid mentality may not always work, but it continually proves an insightful experience.
There are many nuances to sexuality, something Desire Lines explore first-hand, with the main throughline centring around an Iranian-American trans man, Ahmad (Aden Hakimi), and his quest to unlock his own sexual proclivities. In trying to further understand himself he researches queer history at an LGBTQIA+ archive in Chicago where he meets Kieran (Theo Germaine), a trans-masc person who has a flirty, confident nature that, initially, Ahmad isn’t sure how to respond to.
We soon learn it’s the beginning of 2020 and that the pandemic is imminent, so the bathhouses that Ahmad is researching will soon experience their own closures and controversies in a manner that mirrors the HIV/AIDS epidemic that plagued the queer community some decades prior. Ahmad having never been to such a sexual establishment sees his imagination ignited with the thought of exploring, and it’s his desire that is then physically manifested in sequences that transport him to the 1970s and 80s, with the post-Stonewall queer liberation lacing the hallways as the men cruise for connection.
As much as this story provides some interest and likely familiarity for queer audiences, it’s the documentary aspect of Desire Lines that truly resonates, with a variety of trans men detailing their experiences within their new identities. These conversations are frank and unscripted, with some sharing their kinks and opinions on sex work, others detailing their own relationships with their bodies, and one scenario focusing on transmasculine folks and cis men reading dialogue from dating app conversations to one another, setting in motion the discussion about how trans men are often perceived and treated by cis gay men.
The conversations being had are necessary, but at only 83 minutes it feels as if Rosskam is trying to do too much with Desire Lines as a whole. The documentary aspect is where it truly shines and feels like a more engaging feature, and though Ahmad’s story by no means should be diminished or excused, the fact that it never maintains a certain momentum undoes its own impact. All that being said, the research on hand for the fictional narrative – which is infused with archive footage of trans activist Lou Sullivan – is captivating, it just demands its own focus rather than sharing minutes.
Ultimately a sex-positive, layered piece of work that provides trans men with the authentic representation needed in a time where they are continually the victim of harmful rhetoric, Desire Lines is sure to spark interesting, engaging, necessary conversation. Yes, both stories may not necessarily garner the full attention they deserve – I’d love to see an entire narrative surrounding Ahmad’s sexual exploration – but such insight regardless can’t (nor shouldn’t) be denied.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Desire Lines is playing as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking place in-person (and select virtually) between January 18th and 28th, 2024, For more information head to the official Sundance page.