better than chocolate
Film, 1999, 4 stars
Directed: Anne Wheeler
Written: Peggy Thompson
This film achieves something that is rare for lesbian films - true crossover potential without sacrificing too much of what makes the film worth watching for lesbians. Quite a feat, I say, considering how many films have tried the same thing and failed.
The film goes easy on the community "in-jokes", includes a wide variety of queer life (bisexual, transgendered, lesbian) and doesn't shy away from making its points clear when it needs to, while never seeming preachy or overbearing. Most of all, this movie is really, really funny.
Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) has just dropped out of University intending to become a writer. While crashing on the couch in the bookstore where she works, she gets an unexpected phone call from her mother Lila (Wendy Crewson) telling her that both she and her younger brother are coming to stay. The same day Maggie meets Kim (Christina Cox), a travelling artist, and they hit it off so well that when Kim's van is towed Maggie invites her to come and live with her. She sublets an apartment from a woman who has a disturbing obsession with dildos and vibrators, and everyone moves in.
Did I mention that Maggie's mother doesn't know Maggie is a lesbian? Kim and Maggie attempting to have a relationship under Lila's nose is hilarious at first, but then becomes the point of contention between the lovers as the super-out Kim feels betrayed by Maggie's inability to show how proud she is of their relationship.
In another story, Judy, a transgendered woman who has a crush on stoic bookshop owner Frances, struggles with her parents refusal to accept her gender transition, while trying to build her own identity as a man one day and a woman the next. Frances on the other hand is coming to terms with her growing feelings for Judy, while also battling with customs for her shipment of lesbian themed books. (The titles are a hoot, and anyone who can say them with a straight face scores serious points.)
Lila forms an unlikely friendship with Judy, completely unaware that Judy was once a man. Her acceptance of Judy at face value as nothing but an ordinary woman is both screamingly funny and heartwarming to watch as we come to realise just how valuable simple acceptance is to people who have learned the hard way to expect rejection. While Maggie and Kim defend Judy on a physical level (from being beaten up by another lesbian in a woman's bathroom) it is Lila's friendship which gives Judy the true strength and protection she needs to survive.
This film works on so many levels, and rewards repeated viewing. Enough politics were present to satisfy those who like that kind of thing, but not enough to scare anyone away who doesn't. The messages weren't heavy handed statements, they were simple truths such as following your heart, having fun, being yourself against all odds and the value of accepting people for who they are.
If there is one gripe I have about the film it is that the sound is a bit unpredictable, so you find yourself at times straining to hear the words and other times being forced to turn the sound down to stop the pounding music. Some production hassles are only to be expected with independent film though, and when films are as well written and charmingly acted as this one, I'm willing to forgive this fairly minor glitch.
I can think of only one reason why some people might not enjoy this film, and that is if you don't like serious issues such as coming out, changing genders, censorship or gay bashing being played for laughs. In my opinion the comedic targets are well chosen and the film does have its darker moments, but it may all be a case of "in the eye of the beholder". It's not always groundbreaking, but I liked it a lot.