by emily m. danforth
It’s nearly summer, and for me that always means more time to read and write: long mornings spent at my desk followed by endless hammock-afternoons spent with a stack of novels and a pitcher of iced coffee kept close. But in our house, summer also means movie nights. Lots and lots of movie nights. (I tend to indulge my love of horror films in the summer—I save them up all year and binge in June, July, and August. Usually my wife will not watch these particular movies with me, which means I end up scaring-myself alone.)
Cam Post, the first-person narrator of my first novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is also a committed movie-buff. Though, for a variety of reasons, Cam’s tastes are wide-ranging and not always very discerning: she’ll rent just about anything from her local video shop, and she’ll probably end up watching it on repeat while she works on elaborate diorama scenes in a dollhouse her father built for her before his death.
It’s the late 1980s, very early 1990s, in that novel, and Cam’s only choice is to rent the movies she wants to see—streaming them onto a computer in the privacy of her bedroom is just not yet an option. And renting is something of an act of public declaration, in her small town: people, at least some people, know what she’s watching. And what she wants to watch, most, is queer content. In short: she wants to find more films about girls who like girls, or at least films about girls who don’t only like guys (romantically/sexually)—girls who break gender-norms; girls who might serve as a mirror for her own burgeoning identity.
Because of a long history of both overt-censorship of queer cinema and dollar-driven studio control of commercial filmmaking, there just aren’t all that many queer films for Cameron Post to choose from—at least not those available in her small town. And there are none (that she can find) about lesbian or bi-sexual or even questioning teenagers. Zero.
If you’re interested in a really fascinating and entertaining (and sometimes heartbreaking) look at the history (and censorship) of queer cinema, check out the documentary: The Celluloid Closet (based on Vito Russo’s books of the same name).
Of course, things have changed considerably (and for the better), in 25 years since Cam (and I) roamed the aisles of a small town video store. There are more LGBTQ characters on screens large and small—films, television series, web series—than ever before. Certainly there are still sometimes issues of problematic representation in some of these portrayals, but more and more, queer filmmakers and artists are finding ways to create and distribute moving-images that are true to their visions. Most of this work is still independently funded, and so sometimes the production values might not be what you’re used to—especially if you spend most of your time watching big-budget, Hollywood films; but the heart and singular, necessary voices in these films usually makes up for any technical deficiencies.
So, keeping all of that in mind, here’s my list of 10 personal favorite films and/or TV series featuring high school/early college-age girls who are in the process of discovering their lesbian/bisexual/queer/questioning identities and relationships. Some of them are quiet; some of them might now seem a little dated (but you can have fun mocking the fashion choices); some them are campy/silly; all of them are good options for summertime (or anytime, really) viewing. You should be able to easily find all of them online—many of them on Netflix.
Finally, many of these films contain brief scenes of nudity and/or sexual activity; they all also contain some profanity. You can find specific content breakdowns at IMBD.com if you’re curious/unsure if a particular film is a good fit for family viewing night, say. Most of them are unrated or rated PG-13, but both But I’m a Cheerleader and Pariah are (unnecessarily, frankly) rated R.*
*Note: You can learn more about the very problematic history of the American movie ratings board (and its continued bias against queer content) in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated—which, unsurprisingly, itself is rated NC-17, because in order to discuss why certain films have been rated certain ways by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the filmmakers had to use explicit clips from those films in their own film.
- Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998) directed by Lukas Moodyson
A personal favorite teenage, girl-girl love story—probably because it’s the first film I saw that got it, for me, right. It’s Swedish, but even if you’re anti-subtitle, give this one a try. Show Me Love is a remarkable, quiet, beautifully constructed film about two teenage girls stumbling around questions of identity, social-expectations, labels, and, of course, love. (Also—it features a rather kick-ass (if ridiculous) 1990s soundtrack of pop-tunes, including the title track, Robyn’s infectious and oh-so-poppy, “Show Me Love.”) It’s just a sweet movie with a lot of heart.
- D.E.B.S. (2004) directed by Angela Robinson
Prep school girls trained as spies? A villain named Lucy Diamond? An illicit Sapphic romance between spy and con-woman? What’s not to love? D.E.B.S. is silly and campy and just a lot of fun. It’s also directed by a black, lesbian filmmaker who has consistently explored issues of queer sexuality/identity in her work.
- Girl Trash: All Night Long (2014) directed by Alexandra Kondracke (2014)
A musical! Also campy and a bit silly (written as a prequel to the web series of the same name). (Angela Robinson wrote this one.) The songs are very sing-a-longable and this one’s got a little of everything: rock bands and crime bosses and lots of girl-crushes. (And you’ll recognize the two stars of South of Nowhere—a 3-season TV series also on this list.)
- Mosquita Y Mari (2012) directed by Aurora Guerrero
This is a quiet, beautifully shot coming-of-age film about two Chicana high schoolers growing up in immigrant households in Los Angeles. This film deals with issues of class, cultural expectation, familial-ties, and the confusing and intense feelings of a powerful connection between two (at first) unlikely friends.
- Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007) directed by Jamie Babbit
Directed by out filmmaker Jamie Babbit, this one explores a recent high school grad’s first experiences with radical feminism and political activism. (Though there’s plenty of time for romance along the way.) Some of the monologues in this film are a little heavy-handed, but it’s also a funny/angry/energetic (and sometimes tender) look at an activism-centered life.
- But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) directed by Jamie Babbit
Babbit’s first film, this is sometimes recognized as a “new-classic” of lesbian cinema. In it, high school cheerleader Megan is sent to a “sexual redirection” program to “learn to be straight.” There she, of course, falls in love with a girl. While much of the movie is played for laughs (it’s very campy—RuPaul even plays one of the counselors), Megan’s feelings of confusion and uncertainty—and her crush—are very real.
- Pariah (2011) by filmmaker Dee Rees. (*Rated R—this film includes scenes of homophobic violence, as well as several scenes of somewhat explicit sexuality/nudity)
The title tells you a lot. I debated including this film, given its intense emotional drama and difficult/dark subject matter. However, it’s a profound and very real examination of a teenager coming-out as queer in a black, Christian home in Brooklyn. It’s such a necessary film—and an exceptionally well-acted/well-shot one at that. To my mind, Alike’s coming-out scene is among the most powerful ever put onscreen.
And, just for fun, 3 TV series:
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
I mean, I had to include it, right? It was groundbreaking in its portrayal of complicated teenagers (and a host of hell-mouth monsters!) I say you binge all the seasons—and have fun laughing at the datedness of the early episodes, especially. But you can start on season 4 and Willow’s burgeoning relationship with Tara, if you’d prefer. (It begins in the episode title “Hush.”)
- Skins (UK)—season 3
I’ve not watched the US version, but the Naomi/Emily storyline in season 3 of the UK version blew me away, when I first watched it, with its authenticity and tenderness.
- South of Nowhere—all three seasons
So-Cal teen soap opera with plenty of lesbian/bi-sexual romance. What more do you need?