Writer / Director Leaf Lieber
Text Adi Dina
Photos Deanie Chen
Leaf Lieber is a queer filmmaker based in New York City. Lieber spent the majority of his childhood in Kauai, Hawaii after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. After her death, he moved to Los Angeles with his father where he developed a love for performing arts in attempt to overcome his shyness. Coming from an artistic household, Lieber grew into himself through creative means — drawing, painting, and acting colored his childhood and continues to infuse his artistic vision as a filmmaker today. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lieber and talking to him about his short film My Dear Boy, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in June of 2022.
My Dear Boy opens with the first meeting of two young men–the captivating gaze of love at first sight– short winded breath, sweaty palms, loud heartbeat, and dilated pupils. Actor Juan Cortes looks into Tyler Givens’ eyes and hooks the viewer into an imagination of a raw, dreamlike memoryscape of love that is found and then lost.
Overlaying the memoryscape is a voicemail — an open letter of love that transforms anger, denial, and sadness into growth and radical acceptance. A full journey of grief. The integration of the voicemail wasn’t Lieber’s initial plan for the film, but after spending months away from the footage, the words were found in a cathartic prompt he assigned to himself: what would you say to your ex if it was your very last time ever speaking? Considering the audio is its own separate entity, the spectator is taken on a multisensory dream where time and space is entangled. As we visit memories (both utopic and nightmarish) that the characters created together as lovers, time and space collapses to evoke the longing to grasp onto idealized memories and the naivete of getting lost in a first love. The voicemail functions as the final phase of grief. It is a celebration of forgiveness, both of the self and the other, and is a tool for navigating growing pains. A timestamp to honor “the quest home to yourself” as Lieber likes to put it.
Not only does the film explore grief associated with heartbreak, but it also reflects on the grief associated with emerging adulthood — a unique period that hovers above both individuation and innocence. It funnels you into the tender nostalgia of falling in love with someone for the first time. For many, this romantic experience is the first intense attachment to someone other than a primary caregiver. It is a sort of spiritual return to being held —to prolonged eye contact and bare skin touching — of being so close to someone their smell lingers in your nostrils long after you have parted. When that first love dies, our capacity for love at first sight disintegrates as well. We no longer look towards romance with googly, wide-eyes. It is a high that is no longer attainable. And that, too, is something we have to grieve.
The film establishes visual markers that exist between life and death (e.g. when actors Tyler and Juan come back home from a Halloween party in full-face makeup dressed up as a devil and a skeleton and in a surreal shot of the two exchanging their bloody, beating hearts with each other). Having lost his mother at the age of nine, Lieber has a distinct relationship to death that permeates the partnership he carefully develops in My Dear Boy. He mentioned that losing someone at such a young age “transforms them into a fantastical figure like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny” because “you can no longer talk to them... they exist only in memory and dream." In many ways, the film reveals how we recall and romanticize our first loves as divine creatures regardless of the pain they may have activated within us. That letting go of them is to let go of a belief we held onto with our dear lives.
The very act of making this film touches on this idea of reclaiming and honoring memories. Lieber explains that “in attempting to portray an extension of my feelings, sometimes words would fall short...so visually, surrealism allowed me to tap into those inexplicable moments.” He brilliantly constructs the fantastical imagination that is born out of yearning for memories in a beautiful scene of the lovers at an aquarium. The navy blue waters of a shark-filled aquarium evoke the looming danger that surrounds us as we passionately dive into love, while simultaneously foreshadowing the emotionally charged fight that tears the characters apart.
Like an art gallery, the aquarium is a voyeuristic space where one goes to gaze at creatures normally inaccessible to the naked eye. In this moment, their love is a spectacle—something that is perceived and examined in a beautiful, yet othering way. Lieber states, “when you are in a relationship and your love is so fragrant, others will observe it and feel it, yearn for it, and judge it...especially when you are being perceived in a queer relationship. To stand in confidence like a work of art is powerful.” This gesture of placing queer bodies in front of jellyfish—these electric, neon other-worldy creatures— works with and against the fantastical othering historically projected onto queer bodies. It is not pointing to the artificial; rather it is finding the profound, divine wonders that exist in the natural world. The confined architecture of the aquarium in itself mirrors the beautiful glass house two people build together when they first fall for each other. When it is broken, a dangerous flood destroys its foundation.
In the “voicemail” that hovers over the love vignettes, Lieber repeatedly alludes to the color navy blue, which is visually displayed throughout the course of the film. There is a kind of innocence and boyishness to the color. It is reminiscent of the bedsheets one might have in college. The word “navy” literally points to shipping off 18 year old boys to war at sea — “a kind of puffed up chest, sailor bravery” that is embodied when one has to sit in the vulnerability and pain of first love and first heartbreak. It’s dull and understated. “It’s not my favorite color,” Lieber remarks.
Despite being an imagined piecing together of non-linear moments shared with a lover, the film is able to balance its surrealist nature with hyperreal visuals. Lieber crafts visceral moments of the men as they lay together in bed. The natural light simulates the morning glow of waking up next to someone you love. Only when you are really intimate with someone can you see their pores; their dilating eyes; the sweat that drips down their face; goosebumps rising on their skin; every mole and freckle on their body. By creating a tension between nature and artifice, My Dear Boy points to the ways in which love invigorates us — it wakes us up and revitalizes our youthful spirit—while simultaneously skewing our sense of memory, time, and space all at once.
AD: As someone who has an acting background, how is your direction of actors unique to your sets?
LL: I am really committed to creating a safe space on set — an open space for both the crew and actors to feel inventive, playful, and spontaneous. I remember how awkward it feels to be on a stage or sit in front of a camera, so I like to tread with tenderness. This was especially important in MY DEAR BOY because Juan and Tyler were navigating painful territory.
AD: What was it like working with a couple that already has such an established relationship?
LL: I knew I wanted to cast two people in a real relationship for authenticity. Juan [Cortes] has a background in acting and is wickedly talented, and Tyler [Givens] is an insane digital artist with no acting experience, but he was very open to doing this (and blew me away). It required a lot of trust and sensitivity... Luckily we were all good friends to begin with. The two of them carried the entire movie...it wouldn’t have worked with anyone else.
AD: How did you decide to bring in the “imagined” voicemail as the audio that overlays the film?
LL: Ultimately it was born from rejection...the shape of the film didn’t feel like it wanted to have a three act structure or even be a music video.. It was like the universe was saying “no, no, no, this is not what it’s supposed to be.” It was almost a year out of my heartbreak and I was telling myself, “I am done with these feelings...I just want to release them.” So I just kind of sat down, pulled out my phone, and started recording a voice memo directed to an old lover. One take. It definitely was surprising and I never anticipated to be that open but... here we are. I was also inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem “The Dream”. Check it out if you can.
AD: Considering the “voicemail” exists separately from these memories and was brought in much later, how does the film disorient the viewers' conception of time and space?
LL: The film is intended to feel like a premonition. The voicemail kind of felt like the final phase of grief. That last push, personally and creatively. You feel denial, anger, sadness and all of those gritty phases in between, but ultimately you just arrive at a place where you feel gratitude and move along. In a way, the voicemail is my own premonition of what I know now and what I didn’t know then. It was like my past and future self merged. Relearning what I stand for, establishing boundaries, defining the kind of love I require... Just reestablishing my self respect has liberated my entire life — creatively, socially, emotionally, romantically. On one hand it’s all very spiritual and personal for me, but on the other it’s quite literally a five minute movie that someone may or may not relate to... oh well.
AD: How did you balance the act of honoring queer individuality while simultaneously universalizing queer love?
LL: I approached this movie as an extension of a feeling. I think we see queer love portrayed in ways that can feel inauthentic, so I wanted to make something unfiltered and specific to me. It’s a love story...it’s a grief story, it’s a transformation story... It’s a return to self that I think everyone experiences. While radical acceptance is unique to queer development and identity formation, it is also something everyone is invited to partake in at some point or another.
AD: You mentioned earlier that your mother passed when you were a young boy. Considering the immense grief associated with a first romantic heartbreak, how is your relationship to death and grief embedded in the film?
LL: I think tapping into the severity and finality of death is so sobering. It’s not something to be scared of, but it’s sort of like a fragrance that’s always been in the room for me. My earliest memories of her are so primal and instinctual...the feeling of her arms, of holding her legs when I am scared, the smell of her perfume. It is like this vague kind of shadow. As I have stepped into adulthood, I have been feeling so much of her inside of me by connecting to her on a spiritual level. I think just approaching art in the same way...being okay with vulnerability and tapping into the sensory experience to convey a narrative.
AD: Now that the film will be streaming and more accessible to audiences, how does this idea of “letting go” of both art and love seep into your craft?
LL: Art is complicated like that. You make something in the heat of your feelings and you work on it...and then you hate it... and then it changes...and then you might like it a little bit. But by the time most people actually view your work, you feel a sense of detachment towards it. The majority of my ideas originate from the endless quest of saying goodbye... of grieving and shedding skins.. I’m sure it’ll continue to evolve. I hope the project can be a tiny source of inspiration for people to be brave and vulnerable enough to get in touch with their heartspace.
My Dear Boy is now available for viewing on NOWNESS. On March 25th, it will have its international debut at British Film Institute Flare: London LGBTQI+ Film Festival.
Writer / Director Leaf Lieber
Producers Leaf Lieber & Xulani Akel
Starring Juan Cortes & Tyler Givens
Cinematography Zack Blomquist
AC Grace Gallagher
Art Director Bug Fernandez
Makeup Marin Renee
Score Caleb Flood
Connect with Leaf Lieber on: Instagram