It’s rare to see a documentarian deal with subject matter as deeply and individualistically personal as Alden Peters does in his directorial debut, Coming Out. The idea is simple, yet no less tense in its execution: Peters is a gay young man, and he has decided to film the process of telling his friends and family about his sexual identity. What follows is an introspective journey that deals with not only others’ reactions to his sexuality, but his place in the gay community, something that until that point he hadn’t felt included in and doesn’t necessarily identify with.
Peters takes a very naturalistic approach to filming his friends and family, setting up a camera to share his identity and letting the reactions happen. Normally, this sort of acknowledgment that the cameras are rolling would lend itself to a sort of forced artificiality from a documentarian’s subjects, and while that likely happens to a certain extent with Peters’ friends and family, they are apparently so used to the idea of him recording everything that the presence of a camera isn’t all that strange. It’s easy then to see how the reactions of Peters’ friends are genuine—a mixture of confusion, fear, love, and support that asserts itself differently in each person he tells, often in ways that neither Peters nor the audience is primed to expect.
In sharing his story, Peters taps into a lot of questions that any member of the LGBTQ community can relate to: Am I wrong for being this way? Will I lose friends and family for simply being honest about who I am? If I don’t mesh with the cultural stereotype of gayness, is there a place for me in the gay community? Is there such a thing as coming out to yourself? Without this introspective exploration, Coming Out would admittedly be a somewhat shallow film, but Peters puts enough of himself into the project to allow an outsider to appreciate what a personal and soul-bearing experience it is for him.
Thankfully, Peters also balances out his perspective by seeking out others, including sociologists, lesbian YouTuber Kayla Kearney, and transgender activist Janet Mock in order to get to the root of gay cultural identity and address the conflict between self-identity, cultural identity, and cultural stereotypes. Perhaps more important though is his crowdsourced inclusion of other young people’s coming out stories, included for comparison and contrast with his own. In these he is able to emphasize that his experience isn’t universal, and other members of the gay community have faced different challenges in coming out.
Alden Peters is very much a filmmaker just starting his career, but the choice of subject for his first feature could not be more personal in its passion. Coming Out is not a flashy documentary, but it is a potentially important one for LGBTQ youth and their loved ones, a glimpse into the anxieties inherent in being closeted and gay. If this is Peters’ first step, call me intrigued to see where the next shoe falls.