lgbtq

7 Films To Watch For Pride Month

By Andrea Thompson

Happy Pride Month! Since there's still a few days left to enjoy it, here are seven films that you should make time to watch.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

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IMDB

This Golden Age Hollywood film is somewhat limited by its time, but it's also got quite a bit going for it. Countess Marya Zaleska (film goddess Gloria Holden) should be more well-known as not just one of the great female villains, but just a great villain in general. She could even easily be anti-heroine, as we meet her far before our hero and his love interest, who aren't nearly as interesting. What makes Zaleska so tragic is that what she truly wants is a normal life. She believes Dracula's death has freed her, only to discover she still craves blood and death. She is a great danger to both men and women, and lesbian undertones are quite clear, given her ultimate temptation is the sight of a young woman's bare throat. So Hollywood's first reluctant vampire was a complex female character, whose was equally regal, beautiful, and terrifying.

Desert Hearts (1985)

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IMDB

First off, that dynamite outfit on Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). Cay doesn't exactly arrive on-screen, she bursts onto it, laughing as she recklessly drives backward, wind in her hair. The prim and proper Vivian (Helen Shaver), who has just come to a Nevada ranch for some peace and quiet after filing for divorce, is fascinated by her, and only gets more so. Their mutual attraction practically sets the screen on fire every time they meet, and their love scene together is both tender and sensual without coming off as objectifying. The love story is also blissfully free of any love triangle, and the sweetly optimistic ending was a rarity for LGBTQ films at the time.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

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IMDB

“The Watermelon Woman” isn't just a criminally underappreciated classic, it's a 90s time capsule, a time which saw a resurgence in Black cinema. Director and writer Cheryl Dunye plays a fictionalized version of herself who's also named Cheryl, a Black lesbian who works in a video store (ah, nostalgia) in Philadelphia with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). Cheryl soon becomes obsessed with a Black actress who played a series of mammy type roles in the 30s. It's a meta narrative that's also socially conscious, as Dunye creates her own history in order for the fictional Cheryl to confront the lack of resources devoted to Black women on-screen, just as she's dealing with a fallout with her best friend Tamara after she starts dating a white woman. It's groundbreaking, fascinating watch on its own merits, not just because “The Watermelon Woman” is the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian.

Imagine Me & You (2005)

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IMDB

In many ways, “Imagine Me & You” is just another rom-com. The difference? It revolves around two women. Also, it stars Lena Headey. Yes, Queen Cersei. And she's fantastic as Luce, who shares an intense chemistry with Rachel (Piper Perabo) from the moment they lock eyes...on Rachel's wedding day to Heck (Matthew Goode, yes this movie also has Matthew Goode). Even if the poster makes it seem as though this relationship blossomed behind the back of not just one, but two men, Luce is very aware and comfortable about her preference for women. It's Rachel who is initially very sure of who she is, then begins to question her sexuality after she meets Luce. Their love story is sweet and tender as it grows in spite of Rachel's conflict over her kind and decent husband Heck, who senses the change in his wife but is unable to discern the cause. Even if the the movie keeps things light, it also delves into the prejudices and disapproval Luce still has to face simply being who she is, and Heady and Perabo have the kind of chemistry that makes rom-coms soar.

Pariah (2011)

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IMDB

“Pariah” doesn't sugarcoat just how rocky coming-of-age can be for LGBTQ youth in an environment that wants them to be anything but. For her feature film debut, Dee Rees pulls few punches in just how much 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) must overcome despite of her status as a gifted student and writer who lives in Brooklyn, which is often depicted as a liberal haven. Alike is very certain of her lesbian identity, but her conservative parents prefer denial and conformity. Alike's mother is especially invested in her daughter conforming to a more conventional femininity, buying her pink clothes Alike clearly isn't comfortable in, and displaying open hostility towards her supportive and out friend Laura (Pernell Walker). For a time, Alike thinks she's found comfort and love with Bina (Aasha Davis), only to experience her first heartbreak as she learns just how invested Bina is in denying not only her own truth, but their shared one. Even if Alike emerges firmly committed to breaking free of the forces that constrict her, those forces still ensure her freedom has a price.

The Handmaiden (2016)

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IMDB

“The Handmaiden” is one of the most unusual on-screen love stories. The plot seems simple enough at first. In Japanese-occupied Korea, a Korean pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to serve as a handmaiden to the supposedly naive and innocent Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) in order to assist a conman in robbing Hideko of her inheritance. What seems like a straight path (pun intended) soon proves to be more of a maze, as Sook-Hee begins to develop feelings for Hideko, who is also more complicated than she appears. Unlike other films that claim to be erotic, “The Handmaiden” actually lives up to the genre, giving us a thriller that is equal parts suspenseful, stylish, and yes, sexy.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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IMDB

Unlike the other heroines, or even the other anti-heroine, on this list, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) isn't even trying to be good. It's understandable though, since other priorities like survival take precedence. In 1991 New York Lee is deeply out of step with the times. She not only a female writer, she's an older woman who's also a lesbian, and not interested in making nice with entitled, successful male authors. To make some extra cash, she decides to forge letters from deceased authors, and before long is actually able to find quite a bit of success. McCarthy manages to make Lee not only sympathetic but lovable without softening her or making excuses, taking us gleefully along for the ride as Lee cons the industry that has shut her out.

52 Films By Women: Pariah (2011)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

The 2011 Dee Rees film “Pariah” may be a coming of age film about a Black teenager who is also a lesbian, but her struggle isn't with her sexuality exactly. From the film's opening shots, it's pretty clear that 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's into women. As “Pariah” begins, Alike is staring in awe at a female stripper at a club with mostly Black lesbians while the very uncensored version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” plays. So no Alike isn't in denial, but most of those around her are. Alike has to leave soon after, and her insisting that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) leave the bus before her is the first sign that Alike doesn't feel. Sure enough, Alike sheds her preferred masculine clothing for a more conventionally feminine look.

The reasons why are soon clear enough. New York City is generally depicted as a bastion of liberalism and acceptance, where stand-up comics can confess onstage that they're pregnant and planning on getting an abortion the next day. Not so in Alike's Brooklyn neighborhood, a more conservative world where in seems most are happily in denial when reality doesn't suit their beliefs.

Alike's parents certainly are. They're not only in denial about their daughter's sexuality, but their marriage itself. “Pariah” never officially reveals that Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective, is having an affair, but the late-night phone calls, the absences, his lack of interest in almost any kind of intimacy with his wife Audrey (Kim Wayans), and his general defensiveness, are all clear indications.

Alike's inclinations are just as equally clear. It's inescapable even in trivial moments, such as when Audrey buys Alike a pink shirt, and her coworker immediately assumes it's for Alike's younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who is clearly interested in boys and what dress to wear to the school dance. Rather than accepting Alike, Audrey tries to mold her into the image she believes Alike should conform to, which backfires as such efforts usually do.

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IMDB

The really heartbreaking thing is that it backfires in a way neither Audrey nor Alike predict. Audrey disapproves of Alike's friendship with the openly gay Laura, and pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis) instead. Alike is at first reluctant, but quickly forms a bond with Bina, who proves to be more complicated than she appears. In a film where music plays such a large role, the two first bond through a shared appreciation of the underground rap Alike adores. This also gives her a welcome relief from the club scene that the studious Alike has never felt truly comfortable in.

It turns out though (if it needs to be said...spoiler alert!) that Bina is pretty deep in denial too. She's very aware that Alike is a virgin, and takes the initiative throughout their relationship. Bina is the one who makes the effort to get to know Alike, and is the first one to kiss Alike, invite her to stay the night, and take their relationship deeper. But the morning after Bina and Alike have sex, Bina is detached, picking up stuff around her room and not looking at Alike. Not good.

It gets worse, as Alike naturally assumes that Bina still cares about her, even telling Bina that last was amazing and thanking her. In response, Bina dismisses both Alike and the ramifications of their night together, telling her it was just playing around and that she's not “gay, gay, just doing her thing.” The only concern she has left for Alike is whether or not she'll tell anyone. It's basically every girl's worst nightmare of how your first time will be.

This can't leave Alike anything but devastated, but it seems to make her more determined than ever to live her own truth. When she hears her parents arguing, she decides to get involved and finally tell them the truth neither of them wants to hear. Far from being cathartic, Audrey beats Alike in spite of Arthur's pleas, and Alike retreats to Laura's house. Even though Arthur makes a feeble attempt to bring Alike back home, Alike decides to head to Berkeley for an early college program she's been accepted to. “I'm not running, I'm choosing,” she says defiantly. Even if Alike's mother still refuses to reconcile with her daughter at the end, Alike's loved ones, which include not just her father and her sister, but Laura, are there to see her off.

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IMDB

In a way, “Pariah” is a far more brave film than “Moonlight,” a far more iconic film directed by Barry Jenkins that came out in 2016. Dee Rees even utilizes many of the same techniques as Jenkins, albeit in a far more subdued fashion. Jenkins used a far more instrumental score in “Moonlight,” bathing its Miami neighborhood setting in far more sumptuous colors that spoke to Jenkins's influences, specifically Wong Kar-wai.

“Moonlight” also has Chiron reconciling with his mother and finding love by the end. In contrast, diligent student Alike leaves by the end for a new life, still estranged from her mother and the classmate who was her love interest. Even Alike's closeness with the father who was far less interested in changing her remains tenuous. Yet Rees leaves us in no doubt of the bright future Alike has ahead of her. Her heartbreak has allowed her to delve deeper, leaving us with a poem that speaks of her brokenness, and defiance, the freedom she has found as the result of her struggles.

52 Films By Women: Desert Hearts (1985)

Screenshot

Screenshot

By Andrea Thompson

Few things are more satisfying than a groundbreaking film that's actually good. And in 1985, lesbians were doing the Western romance way before “Brokeback Mountain.” So if you haven't heard of the 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” get familiar.

“Desert Hearts” isn't just groundbreaking because it's a lesbian love story that's written and directed by women. There's more to it than that, as director Donna Deitch is also a lesbian, so we're also seeing a queer love story as told through a queer female gaze, which helps explain why the love scene is sensual and appreciative rather than leering or objectifying.

Many films also love to claim they're subversive, but such claims are genuine in this case. “Desert Hearts” kicks off when 35-year-old New York academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) comes to Reno, Nevada in 1959 for some peace and quiet during her divorce. As she explains to her lawyer, there was nothing really wrong with her marriage. Her husband was good to her, and they had a good life together. It just wasn't the life she wanted, which is an honest one that doesn't depend on having the right friends and the right prints on the wall.

“I yearn for something you couldn't analyze or reason away,” Vivian explains. “I want to be free of who I've been.” She accepts that this might mean she's alone for the rest of her life.

Or not. Enter the 25-year-old free-spirited Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who feels like a force of nature from the moment she appears on-screen, laughingly, recklessly driving backward to greet Vivian as she's arriving at the ranch where Cay is also staying. Vivian is immediately interested, if not quite consciously at first. From the first time the two actually meet and chat, the chemistry is off the charts. Blue really is the warmest color the way Charbonneau rocks that crop top and jean shorts. It's bodice ripper level of swoonworthy.

worldscinema.org

worldscinema.org

The setting for their slowly building romance also soon proves to be far more complicated than your typical repressive small town. Cay is pretty open about her numerous affairs with women, which her surrogate mother and ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley) tolerates while simultaneously turning a blind eye to. She also has a true friend in Silver, an older woman who works with Cay, and who's happily engaged to a man, but also has a tenderly physical relationship Cay as well.

“Joe's in the kitchen, you're in the tub,” Silver sighs to Cay. “Jesus, I'm happy.” Unconventional to be sure, but it becomes one of the film's more beautiful portrayals, not only of love, but of female friendships, with Joe (Antony Ponzini) accepting of them both and unconditionally loving towards Silver. Silver is also the only one who seems to have Cay's best interests at heart, and offers her advice that is actually geared towards her betterment.

Cay does seem to have all the freedom in the world...until she finds that “somebody who counts,” as she puts it. As her and Vivian's connection grows, so too does the opposition to it. Frances kicks Vivian out of the house, but then, she might have done that with any connection Cay formed. Her lack of acceptance is also ironically born out of a deep need for Cay's love and presence. She was the mistress of Cay's father for ten years, even taking Cay in after her mother left her, and Frances desperately wants to keep Cay close to her.

It's indicative of Deitch's refusal to allow either women to be defined by the reactions of the straight women around then, and it's most likely why reactions to their tender love story were mixed. There are few things straight white men dislike more than such complete and utter dismissals of their perceptions and opinions. Deitch even had a difficult time finding actresses to audition, since fear of playing LGBTQ material was at an all-time high, especially when the script didn't involve suicide, heartbreak, or a love triangle with a man.

It is also the older, prim and proper Vivian (who actually wears a string of pearls) who is seduced by Cay, slowly and tenderly in the gorgeous desert landscape. I'm no fan of small towns, having hated the one I grew up in. But they do lend themselves to a kind of poetry onscreen, which makes certain one-liners sound wise rather than laughable, such as when Vivian tells Cay her marriage “drowned in still waters,” and Cay replies, “Say no more.” Even the country music is used to great effect. As Silver sings a love song and the two eye each other up, the heat they generate radiates off the screen.

The best, most enjoyable exchange between the two actually happens right before their love scene, where Vivian is explaining to Cay what a respected scholar she is, and how fond she is of order and how unused she is to raising her voice, only to turn around and see Cay naked in her bed. “I wouldn't know what to do,” Vivian protests. Cay replies, “You can start by putting the do not disturb sign on the door.”

What happens after, when the two women leave the hotel room and spend time in the outside world, is difficult to watch. It's clear they love each other, partially because they both tell each other, and that Cay's feelings for Vivian make this a new experience for her too. Vivian is unused to having to defend herself and her relationship against the world, and feels exposed just sitting in a restaurant with Kay, resulting in their first fight. In another film, this is where they would part ways, and “Desert Hearts” would end in either a terrible accident or their declaration to love each other regardless of what the outside world thinks. When they do risk parting, it has nothing to do with any outside opinion, which must have set so many critical teeth on edge.

Indiewire

Indiewire

When the real suspense comes is when Vivian has to return to New York, and Cay's real insecurities swim to the surface. Vivian wants Cay to come with her and really commit to a new life, even if it may not work out. “If you want a sure thing, stay in Reno,” she tells Cay, who is hesitant to leave the comfortable world she knows. “Desert Hearts” likewise gives us no guarantees, only a glimpse of what could be a happy ending when Cay jumps on Vivian's train at the last minute, at least deciding to give Vivian another forty minutes to the next station. I can only hope she decided to take the ride for as long as it lasted.