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I want to love this movie. I need you to know this. I have a notebook and pen in front of me (how analogue) and I am here, at the gorgeous Light House Cinema for the GAZE Film Festival, with my reviewer hat on but also my fannish heart twirling in my chest, because this is my kind of movie.
The term ‘film festival’ can seem pretentious, but in our blockbuster-obsessed world what it means is a chance to see anything that isn’t the tenth reboot of a popular franchise. The Dublin GAZE festival focuses on films with LGBT content, and has been running since 1992 – the year before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland. In its 25th year it was able to showcase how far ‘official Ireland’ has come, with a documentary exploring the introduction of same-sex marriage into the country two years previously. Over the years, other documentaries have made appearances, alongside movies from both home and abroad that in some way explore what it means to be queer in this world.
Sometimes this means serious, often harrowing accounts of homophobic violence – and indeed, alongside the festival volunteers in the cinema, there are representatives from Amnesty International asking for signatures on petitions and drawing attention to unpunished gay hate crimes elsewhere in the world – and sometimes it simply means, very simply, showing queer characters and couples on screen. Look, here. See? Here is a man who likes other men. Even kissing them! Gasp! Or, here are two women. They’re a couple. It’s normal.
To be ‘other’ in any way – not just in terms of sexuality, but gender identity, race, disability, etc – means not seeing ‘people like you’ in the media all that often, and certainly not as protagonists. Film – or other media – that focuses on any ‘othered’ group can be a powerful tool for bringing people together, both figuratively and literally. A sense of belonging can come with seeing ‘people like you’ as key players in a story unfolding before your eyes – as well as sitting in a cinema with others who’ve chosen to seek out this particular story.
All of which is to say, there are a lot of women in this cinema as I wait for this lesbian rom-com to begin. (There are five men. An unofficial count has been taking place before the movie starts.) And there is a buzz that you simply don’t get in a regular movie theatre, which is not uncommon in anything that is a bit specialist, a bit ‘other’. In this oh-so-liberal day and age, coming to a festival like this is not quite like coming out, not quite like a secret handshake. But there’s a sliver of that remaining.
I really want to love this movie. The lights darken; the credits roll; here we go. This is the Irish premiere of Good Kisser, an American feature film written and directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, known for lesbian-themed indie movies (including Hannah Free, starring Sharon Gless) and a web series, Easy Abby. The premise, revealed to us and indeed the characters’ cab driver within the first couple of minutes, is that an established lesbian couple (young beautiful twentysomethings) are ‘going on a date’ with another woman.
Meet Jenna (Kari Alison Hodge). She’s adorkable, which we realise long before she angsts, “I feel so dorky”. Neurotic but kind of trying to be up for this weird thing of hooking up with another woman, and immediately we know that her blonde, cool girlfriend Kate (Rachel Paulson, younger sister of Sarah) is the one who’s set this whole thing up. And now meet Mia (Julie Eringer), the woman in question, who has a British accent and is dark and sexy and will discuss Jenna’s novel-in-progress with her in sexy ways.
Because of course Jenna has a novel-in-progress. And of course Kate is snarky about the fact that Jenna’s “been working on it for like, two years” and doesn’t quite get it, while Mia says clever things about how the protagonist’s name, Barbara – Barb – “is a statement”. Then there’s a book Mia’s reading that Jenna loves – that she randomly selects a passage to read from – and it’s all very sexy and also very clear that Mia won’t be getting her own personality any time soon. She’s a catalyst for exposing the fault lines in Jenna and Kate’s relationship – and now that I understand this, I can make my peace with it.
But there’s an undeniably familiar vibe about this, and it is season 1 of The L Word, the ground-breaking Showtime series (2004-2009) which depicted a group of (mostly) lesbian women living laughing loving and other l-verbs in Los Angeles. The series begins with naïve (though troubled, as we later discover) Jenny and her fiancé Tim moving next door to a – gasp! – lesbian couple, and being pulled into their world. Aspiring writer Jenny is quickly seduced by the exotically-accented Marina as they discuss literature – as you do. Jenny’s inner turmoil and drama shapes much of the series, to the point where many were delighted to see her murdered in its final season, but Marina’s job is mostly to be sexy.
It’s not just that Mia’s role in Good Kisser seems to echo this, though. It’s that sense of giving something a bit of leeway artistically because of what it is doing politically. The L Word – despite its popularity, powerful enough for a sequel to be on the way – was not a great TV series. It was OK. It was brilliant in parts and cringeworthily terrible in others. It featured some amazing guest stars and some painfully clunky dialogue. It was, at the time, what you watched if you wanted to see women-who-love-women on your screen – or more importantly, if you wanted a world where this was the norm and not just a supporting plot.
I loved it for its depiction of queer women but also for its depiction of female friendships – some of its finest scenes involved the characters just hanging out together. (Even if you were to amend the Bechdel Test to include not discussing any romantic interests, not just men, the show passes it with flying colours.) But to cite it as a fine example of the extraordinary capabilities of serial storytelling in this golden age of television would be absurd.
And this is the same with Good Kisser. It is not the world’s best romantic comedy or exploration of relationships ever. Not even close. Were it about a straight couple I would be immediately filing it away under ‘meh’ – but then again, you couldn’t explore these dynamics with a straight couple. That’s the problem. Direct comparisons don’t work. For this kind of three-way tension to fully work, in any configuration, you need queerness in some shape or form.
So here we have our trio: Jenna who loves Kate but is attracted to Mia; Kate who is in a relationship with Jenna but is soon happily sneaking kisses with Mia; and Mia, who is the queen of seduction with a sexy British accent. Jenna frets over being unable to orgasm with “new people” and arranges a safe word with Kate so she can “take over”; a knowing Mia traces Jenna’s pulse points with an ice cube and prompts a mini-freak-out: “I can’t pay attention to two women at once!”
Nevertheless, Kate wants this to go ahead, encouraging her girlfriend to go with it; they play Spin the Bottle and swap stories from childhood. Jenna continues to get the best lines in the movie as she notes, “Catholic school just made me feel guilty for . . . existing”, while Kate and Mia exchange faintly indulgent looks. As things move into ‘proper’ threesome territory, the relationship between the latter becomes increasingly obvious, and Jenna’s safe word is ignored as her girlfriend ogles Mia.
Time for this relationship to end, one might assume, but not before Jenna uncovers Mia’s secret identity as an author (of the book they were reading from earlier, you wonder? Yes indeed!) and does things with ice lollies that are – well, exactly what you think. And it must be said there’s something delicious about Kate responding to Jenna’s post-coital cigarette with “You don’t smoke” and a newly cool Jenna replying, “Now I do.”
Shouldn’t the movie end there? Wouldn’t that be perfect? I’m afraid not; we need to see Jenna being picked up by the same taxi driver as earlier (of course) and then Mia yearning for this woman who has uncovered her dark secret, while Kate continues to be a terrible girlfriend and human generally. Oh, guys.
This is not an amazing film. It’s not even a great film. But it is, I think, good. It is interesting. It does some things you will not get in your standard summer rom-com (itself an endangered species). It offers up eighty minutes of prioritising queer women and their relationships (with one inevitable man, a chatty neighbour who divulges Mia’s secret identity). The thing is, as with The L Word a decade ago, what can you fairly compare it to?
I leave the cinema feeling: I wanted to love this movie. In the sea of murmurings I hear people being disappointed but not in a devastated way, a good-but-not-great way, an ah-it-was-OK-but-a-bit-of-a-let-down way. I have an ethical crisis over the star rating strip that we’ve all been given, because how many stars do I tear off this cardboard yoke and how many do I leave to place into the bucket so that the film’s rating can be totted up by the festival?
And despite the fact that this entire festival is about queer movies, I want to give Good Kisser bonus points anyway. Because it is a romantic comedy in a genre that can do a lot of tormented angst. Because even within queer communities, women can still find themselves far less represented than the men. Because I want to note that I am glad it exists and can earn a full house on a Friday night.
So I leave four stars on the strip when really the film deserves three, because I don’t think we’re quite there yet, with not giving out the bonus points. Because I really did love The L Word, flawed and infuriating as it often was. Because even when we judge things on their artistic merit alone, that includes what other art has done, is doing, and how it relates to the world in which we live.
Because it is possible – and desirable, if you’ve a critic hat on – to see what a work of art is trying to do while also wishing it had done it a little bit better, but still admiring it for trying all the same.