“When you’re analyzing lesbian films, you do need to re-arrange your standards.” ~ Pink News
What was the first tragic lesbian film? Possibly 1931’s Maedchen in Uniform. What were Hollywood’s first happy lesbian romances? Possibly 1982’s Personal Best and 1984’s Desert Hearts. When does the lesbian romantic comedy come of age? The mid 1990s.
Last February I watched a collection of m/m romcoms. The worst ones demonized women and bisexual men, making them the antagonists who keep the lovers apart. This summer I watched a collection of w/w romcoms. They have tropes of their own and a complicated relationship with bisexuality.
The following reviews contain mild spoilers.
Out Lesbian Teen: I’m out and proud but have very little agency.
Lesbian Teen in Denial: You’re SO cool! I don’t know WHY I enjoy spending time with you.
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995). Working class Randy Dean falls for upper class Evie at her high school. Randy’s out and proud but Evie needs time to figure things out. More relaxed than your typical high school film. The pace doesnt pick up till the third act.
Most Agency: Randy makes the first move but Evie follows up fast.
Show Me Love (1998). (aka F***ing Åmål). Swedish teen romance. Gothy Agnes gets a drunken kiss from popular diva Elin. Elin’s mean friends think it’s a joke but romance soon blossoms. The characters look and act more like teenagers than the others on this list. Their casual cruelty can be hard to watch but it gives the film a spiky energy.
Most agency: Elin.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall play teens who fall in love at a candy colored conversion camp. Cathy Moriarty brings laughs and scares as the ruthless camp director while RuPaul flounders as an underwritten counselor. I dismissed this film in a past article but it meant a lot to its target audience.
Most agency: Clea DuVall at first. Then Natasha Lyonne steps up.
Leading Lady: I haven’t got time for love. I’m focused on my career!
Love Interest: I haven’t got much going on. I’m just here for you to fall in love with.
Go Fish (1994). Black and white mumblecore. Angsty Max falls for shy Ely. Their snarky friends break the fourth wall to comment on the plot. These moments are the highlights of the film. The acting is amateurish, and the romance is boring, but the screenplay has clever things to say about 90’s lesbian culture.
Most agency: The match making best friend.
The Watermelon Woman (1996). Lesbian filmmaker researches a forgotten black actress from the 1930’s. She’ll learn the actresses’ rocky love life had parallels to her own. Early scenes suggest a hybrid romcom / docudrama but the romance dials back as the filmmakers’ search gains ground. The script has more ideas than it can explore in 80 minutes but the ambition gives it a unique feel. A love scene caused the pearl clutchers to challenge the films’ NEA funding… drawing amusing parallels to the 30’s Hollywood censorship discussed here.
Most agency: The filmmaker.
Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006). Nina has entered the Big Curry Competition to save her late father’s restaurant. Her schoolmate Lisa sees Nina’s… potential and vows to help her. Cooking montages, family fights and a sassy gay friend delay the inevitable. Saccharine lines like “Taste it in your heart” made me cringe. For all the talk of spice it settles for predictable comfort food.
Most agency: Nina drives the plot. The rest of the cast reacts to her.
Mother and Daughter
Closeted Lesbian: I’m going to ignore you when my mom visits. Yet somehow keep spending time with you.
Out Lesbian: HOW DARE YOU! If you don’t come out I’ll leave you!
Mom: Stop hanging out with your “friend” and find a husband!
Better Than Chocolate (1999). Closeted store clerk hides her girlfriend from her high-strung mother. Musical numbers and slapstick hijinks ensue. Midway through the wacky farce turns dark with subplots about homophobic vandalism and a transphobic assault. It reminded me of 1998’s Relax… It’s Just Sex which also derailed a romcom with a surprise hate crime. While the characters in Relax could almost handle the tonal shifts, the paper-thin ones here cannot. The soufflé falls flat. Loses more points for casting a cis actor in the trans role.
Most agency: Hard to say. Possibly the antagonists. Most of the leads are re-acting to circumstance.
Saving Face (2005). Daughter’s a closeted surgeon. Mother’s pregnant and won’t name the father. When their Chinese-American family exiles them mother and daughter must learn to live together. Is there room for romance? It’s hard to express how delightful this film is without giving away its many surprises. The cast is top notch and the script goes in some places I expected and some I had not. A tinge of darkness grounds the characters and gives the comedy some teeth.
Most agency: The mother whose actions drive most of the plot. Daughter is left reacting to her till late in the film.
Lez Bomb (2018). Lauren plans to come out to her parents on Thanksgiving, but her zany relatives derail her plans. While Better than Chocolate turned grim and Saving Face kept a balance, Lez Bomb wants to be Zany with a capital Z. The mix of farce and realism causes tonal dissonance. A drug dealing uncle, a jailbait cousin, and a brother who thinks seducing a lesbian is a “challenge” are farcical types but they’re also really gross. Deirdre O’Connell stands above it all as the sensible mother who’ll be perfectly happy to listen to Lauren once she’s done cooking the turkey.
Most agency: The antagonistic relatives push Lauren around for most of the film.
“Why can’t lesbians get anything fun?… I have watched so many of these sad-ass movies.” ~ Drunk Lesbians Review
The romcom trappings are there but the plot takes a turn. As the drama increases the comedy retreats until everyone is in tears. Sometimes the final scene tries to lift the mood again. Whether it succeeds is up to the viewer.
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002). Jessica’s tired of dating men so she tries dating Helen. She quickly realizes she doesn’t want sex but doesn’t want to lose the new friendship. Is she bi-curious? Asexual? Rather than articulate her needs she strings Helen along. Meanwhile her male boss sexually harasses her. The film seems to think he’s a viable love interest. I ended up disliking everyone except Jackie Hoffman’s supportive co-worker.
Most agency: Helen gets stuck with the emotional labor.
Grade C- (The film got positive reviews when it was released so I’m an outlier here.)
Imagine Me & You (2005). Piper Perabo’s headstrong newlywed is torn between her meek new husband (Matthew Goode) and her confident wedding florist (Lena Headey). The actors are likable but it’s clear someone’s going to get hurt. The script stalls for time, pretending it’s a quirky romcom, till it’s forced to confront the adultery in a weepy third act.
Most agency: Piper Perabo. Everything hinges on her actions and she finds the charm in a character who could have been hateful. Still when your male lead is the most sympathetic character in your lesbian romcom… there’s a problem.
Gray Matters (2006). Heather Graham plays a neurotic child-woman saddled with every bad romcom protagonist tic. When she falls for her brother’s sketchy fiancé there’s nothing to do but wait for her to grow up and get over it. Tom Cavanaugh nicely underplays the snarky brother. Alan Cumming, Sissy Spacek and Molly Shannon overplay the weak comic relief.
Most agency: The mysterious fiancé who charms both siblings. It’s never clear what she truly wants.
Cloudburst (2011). When her angry granddaughter puts her in a home Dot (Brenda Flicker) flees town with her partner Stella (Olympia Dukakis). They hope to get married in Canada but Stella’s violent temper causes trouble on the road. I thought I would love this film, but it wasn’t for me. I found Stella’s hostile behavior tedious and I couldn’t get past the fact that her tantrums kept putting Dot’s life in danger.
Most agency: Stella, for better and worse.
Grade C+ (Again, I’m an outlier on this one.)
Duck Butter (2017). After a great first date Naima and Sergio pledge to spend 48 hours awake together, having sex every hour. Without sleep or boundaries, the women quickly devolve into their worst selves, encapsulating why neither is ready to live with someone else. Ambitious and creative, though for all the talk of intimacy it kept me at a distance.
Agency: Sergio, who proposes the “game” and sticks to the rules.
ME: Why aren’t there more queer genre movies?
(Watches queer genre movies)
ME: Oh right. ‘Cuz genre movies require money.
D.E.B.S. (2004). Teen spy falls for a glamorous jewel thief. Campy, low-budget hijinks ensue. Expanded from a 10-minute short to a 90-minute feature. The cast commits to the goofy tone but you can spot the moment, about midway through the film, where the script runs out of steam. They could have used a proper villain to raise the stakes. I mean, Holland Taylor was right there with nothing to do! Give her a doomsday device and a list of demands! Critics were harsh but the film earns points for ambition.
Most agency: Lucy Diamond, the Catwoman-esque terrorist, has brains and initiative in a film full of dim-witted characters.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2012). A quartet of bald, monotone aliens visit earth to sample the lesbian dating scene. Emulates the look and feel of 1950’s B-movies. The aliens have strong character traits to play but the human characters are uncomfortable with the semi-improvised dialogue. As with D.E.B.S. there’s a surprising lack of conflict. They’ve got enough laughs here for a sketch but not for a 74-minute feature.
Agency: The aliens boldly assert themselves. The human characters waffle.
Take a look at Box Office Mojo’s list of highest grossing “Gay / Lesbian Movies at the Box Office.” Four of these romcoms made that list and they’re well at the bottom. More than a quarter of the films feature queer characters who die before the credits roll. This is one of the reasons why I consider romcoms important representation.
The films above contain:
- 3 cynical lesbian co-workers
- 3 brassy straight female co-workers
- 3 judgey teen girl squads
- 2 flustered female therapists
- 2 precocious kid sisters
- 2 supportive brothers
- 2 snarky straight male colleagues
- 2 sassy gay men
- 1 wise trans woman
- 11 closets to come out of.
- 9 stressed out mothers (dads tend to be absent or mellow).
- 4 angry ex-boyfriends.
- 3 nice boyfriends who keep missing the clues.
- 2 jealous lesbian colleagues.
- 1 bitter granddaughter.
- 1 conversion camp
- 1 group of violent drunken men.
- 1 violent transphobic lesbian.
- Artist – Actor, Dancer, Filmmaker
- International Spy
- Store Clerk – Book Store, Stationary Store, Video Rental Store.
- Yoga Instructor
- 6 public displays of affection from a previously closeted character.
- 3 races to catch them before they leave town.
- 2 romantic dances.
- 1 political protest.
- 1 marriage proposal.
- 7 characters sleep with multiple genders but only one self-identifies as bisexual. However, these films don’t demonize bi-sexuality the way many m/m romcoms do.
- 5 protagonists end up single at the end of the film. 2 meet someone new in the final minutes to offer a glimmer of hope.
- 5 protagonists are physically assaulted over the course of their film. 2 by toxic love interests.
- My favorites on this list: The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, Saving Face, Show Me Love.
Have you seen these films? What were your thoughts? What other romcoms would you add? Which of these couples do you think have the healthiest relationships?
For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.
Up Next: I look at some well meaning trans representation in the 1971 farce Girl /Stroke/ Boy.