all over me
Directed: Sylvia Sichel
Written: Alex Sichel
The storyline for All Over Me might be above and beyond anything that most teenagers experience - it's not everyone who grows up in Hell's Kitchen surrounded by murder, drugs and violence - but the fundamental emotional responses the main characters have to their situations are so universal that the film still feels relevant years after its release. This is an important, totally underrated lesbian film, which is not bad for a film where the word "lesbian" is not once uttered.
Claude (Alison Folland) is fifteen and living in near poverty with her mother in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in New York. She's a bit shy, a bit overweight, works in the local pizza parlour, plays guitar badly, dreams of being in a girl rock band and is just starting to come to grips with the fact that her sexual feelings for another girl are deeper than they should be. In other words, a fairly average lesbian teen.
Claude dotes on her best friend Ellen (Tara Subkoff), a fact that Ellen knows and takes advantage of at every opportunity. Everything changes between them when Ellen gets involved with a local street thug and drug dealer, Mark (Cole Hauser). Ellen soon finds herself over her head in a world of sex and drugs. Claude is powerless to do anything about it except be there and cop the fallout. Things come to a head when, after a bitter confrontation, Mark and his friends are implicated in the murder of Claude's gay neighbour. Ellen 'fesses up her knowledge of the crime and Claude is faced with the decision of betraying Ellen and going to the police, or keeping the secret, despite knowing that would be betraying everything she is beginning to realise is true to herself.
In the middle of all this, and through the haze of confusion that is her love for Ellen, Claude forms a mutual attraction to Lucy (Leisha Hailey in an excellent pre-L Word stint), a pink-haired, rocker girl she meets at a lesbian club. However, it is soon obvious that this new, healthy relationship won't stand a chance unless she can break the shackles of her desperate connection with Ellen and emerge as her own person.
Along with savvy scripting and directing, it is the near-flawless performances that make this film what it is. Alison Folland made three wonderful films back to back before dropping back into obscurity; this one, the black comedy To Die For and the chilling Boys Don't Cry. All Over Me succeeds or fails on her portrayal of Claude which, despite her inexperience in leading roles, is just so moving.
Cole Hauser continues his lucrative career playing some of the best thugs on film (see also his riveting neo-Nazi performance in Higher Learning). Also deserving of special mention is Pat Briggs as the gay neighbour Luke and Leisha Hailey's sweet turn as the streetwise-yet-childlike Lucy. Tara Subkoff is the film's weakest link as Ellen. Subkoff is so thin it made me wince every time she walked onscreen, plus she has a tendency to whine her way through the difficult moments rather than act.
Just as music plays a huge role in Claude's life, the film's soundtrack is like another character, with depth, variation and purpose. From the riot grrl tracks of Lucy's band, through the indie background tracks (from such classic artists as Ani Difranco, Cornershop and Helium), to the crushing sounds of Patty Smith's classic "Pissing in a River" that reduces Claude to tears in Lucy's bedroom, not a single note seems meaningless or wasted. It's a textbook example on how music can enhance a film, but not overpower it.
The most difficult lesson for Claude to learn is that no matter how painful it is, you can't save someone who won't save themselves, no matter how much you love them. Loyalty is important, but self-respect is more so. It's a huge lesson for a fifteen year old to learn. Yet despite everything she goes through, Claude never fully abandons her youthful optimism and romanticism and, most of all, is not scared away from trusting someone else with her emotions.
The best endings are when something is lost but enough is gained to make the sacrifice and pain worthwhile. All Over Me has one of those truly bittersweet endings that make you believe that you can make it through, no matter what happens. To my mind, that is ultimately the most positive message we can be sending to young lesbians struggling with their sexuality today.