The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love
I will write the complete title once: The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love; henceforth it shall be just Two Girls. This is a low-budget, American debut feature written and directed by Maria Maggenti. It comes with a fair deal of hype, since it’s a story of young, lesbian love that did fairly well at the box-office in USA. So it’s an example of that phenomenon which many people, it seems, long to see: a crossover movie with supposedly “universal” appeal; a film with a progressive political message but wrapped up in entertainment, extolling basic human values and experiences of love, tolerance and growing up. And that is a very large load of grand rhetoric to load onto one small, modest, whimsical and rather imperfect movie.
The film has an agenda, and it certainly includes issues of social tolerance, personal liberation and the need for all-round compassion. But such political issues are an almost mundane feature of the world of Two Girls – just part of the furniture, in the air, everyday stuff and trouble. The lesbian intrigue is only one axis in this mild personal/political adventure. Evie (Nicole Ari Parker) has lead a hetero life at school and at home until she meets, and is attracted to, Randy (Laurel Holloman). That’s already one hill to climb, one barrier to cross, one difference to negotiate. But there’s also the fact that Evie is black, while Randy is white. And that Evie is rich while Randy is not. That Evie has a yuppie, careerist, very respectable single mother, while Randy hops around in what she calls a “normal, average lesbo household”. So it’s a romantic comedy, casually social and political in content, the way virtually all the great romantic comedies used to be.
Reportedly, Maggenti was distressed when her film was marketed as a zippy “lesbian teen movie”. I’m not surprised; her film has very little of the teen genre’s standard flash and flair. Comparing it with John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) or Pretty in Pink (1986) really does Maggenti’s film no favours at all. It’s just not that kind of film; quieter, more understated, the shots are not as zany, the pop soundtrack is not as driving. The acting has a simple, old-fashioned, rom-com touch to it – slightly awkward in a cute, touching way. And the actual physical slapstick, when it comes at the end, is nothing like the slick, manic burlesque of mainstream American teen movies. Here it’s resolutely daggy, with a dose of amateur theatre about it. That awkwardness and amatuerishness are part of the charm of Two Girls – and also its limitation. It’s not a very adventurous film, and not even a very accomplished one. But it does have an affecting simplicity, a quality of heart.
So it’s not really a teen movie, but it does have much in common with another, contemporary tradition in American cinema: independent films about the everyday, funny-and-sad experiences of ordinary people in alternative lifestyles. This is an understated, mainly naturalistic tradition that is generally not very well known, although it can be tracked down with some effort in films including Patti Rocks (David Burton Morris, 1988) and the terrific ‘68 (Steven Kovacs, 1988). This tradition goes back to the 1960s; its films tend to be about suburban people who are “average” – except for the fact that they’re passionately left-wing folk trying doggedly to organise community political action, or gay suburbanites living in communal houses, or people into environmental issues attempting to live together in a new-fangled farming community. The absolute, deathless masterpiece in this line is beyond mainstream and even beyond “indie”: Robert Kramer’s & John Douglas’ epic Milestones (1975).
I get the sense that such American films are even more invisible in America than they elsewhere; maybe Arthur Penn’s movie of Arlo Guthrie’s grand storytelling song Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the last one to go out to a broad public. In more mainstream USA movies since then – like Paul Mazursky’s Willie & Phil (1980) or a later Penn film, Four Friends (aka Georgia, 1981), even The Way We Were (1973) – there are intense episodes of, or flashbacks to, this ‘60s era – so fleeting in their intensity that they border on incomprehensibility, as if they are trying desperately to recollect some very far away, alien time and place.
More usual in recent American movies is the depiction of the leftwing ‘60s as either a quaint greenie joke, or else something monstrous: an aberrant period where everyone was a cold-hearted psycho-terrorist – the type of picture you get from Forrest Gump (1994). These days, the modest, low-key films about alternative, left-wing lifestyles, such as Two Girls, seem to have internalised an embattled air of fragility: the lives they depict seem precarious, overlooked, marginal, under threat of imminent extinction – just as the films themselves are in the big, bad, commercial film world of the mid ‘90s.
Another tradition to which Maggenti’s film relates closely is far more recent: the queer cinema movement. I’ll risk a few preliminary, explanatory remarks about it. As a political movement, the queer scene is one extension or development on various forms of gay and lesbian politics. The idea of queerness stresses the fundamental fluidity of gender roles and sexual behaviours, personal identities and lifestyles. It signals a move away from boxing everybody into set, fixed roles of gay, lesbian, straight, homo, hetero, and so forth. In relation to film, the queer movement embraces everything that is playful and shifting in cinema’s depiction of gender roles – gender as a masquerade, a game.
So there’s a place within queer cinema for mainstream entertainments, comedies about cross-dressing like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), as well as sophisticated arthouse hits about gender roles such as Orlando (1992) and, at the furthest extreme, low-tech, low-budget, experimental or video-art pieces. The cultural attitude and style of the queer movement is intriguing: on the one hand, it marks a return of the flamboyant camp sensibility (via, most prominently, John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar). And on the other hand, it champions, like the badly named post-feminist push of the ‘80s and beyond, an expression of sexual desire that is deliberately and proudly perverse, transgressive.
The fact that we can have, released theatrically at the same moment in Melbourne in 1996, this light, whimsical, lesbian movie as well as Gregg Araki’s resolutely in-your-face The Doom Generation (1995) – and the fact that both of them premiered at the local Queer Film and Video Festival – certainly says something about the span and diversity of queer cinema at present. I do worry that the queer cinema movement is breaking down boundaries and definitions only to put itself – or find itself – in a new kind of box. To use the ugly commercial language of the ‘90s, queer cinema could be in danger of becomng a niche market that is packaged, streamed and separated off from every other kind of niche market. Already, you can see the signs that queer movies such as Two Girls may end up being showcased in a very particular (i.e., small) niche of the existing arthouse marketplace; they’re not yet brushing up against the latest Quentin Tarantino or Krzysztof Kieślowski opus – let alone more mainstream fare.
Now, on one level, I have nothing against niche marketing as such; I guess it’s a practical, efficient form of doing business in the world of distribution and exhibition. And it’s good to know, as a viewer, where to go in order to see what you want to see (and what you want to avoid). Not all movies – maybe not many movies – are meant for everyone, right across the board. All the same, I do like the possibility of surprise, people sometimes seeing films they would never consciously choose to see if they knew exactly what was in store for them. When it comes to movies that touch, in whatever way, on burning issues of sexual politics and identity, then I believe that this surprise factor is especially important.
The thought that it is mainly only the already-converted watching queer cinema displeases me – since the movement itself preaches the opposite, delightful fluidity and (in some sense) inclusiveness. Ideally, there should be chances for all kinds of viewers – straight, gay, not-yet-gay, bi, as well as any possible point in between all those options – to encounter worlds and cultures, identities and pleasures, that they might know very little about to begin with.
Maggenti is herself very perceptive on this question. When asked in an interview whether she preferred a focused, niche-marketing strategy for her movie, targeting and alerting the gay communities, or a wide, mainstream entertainment ad campaign, she was in favour of the latter – but a honest campaign that would not hide the lesbian content of her film. “Especially for closeted people”, she said. “You can’t reach them through gay press or gay advertising. You have to reach them where they live which is maybe, at home with their mom, right?"
Postscript: Subsequently, Maria Maggenti has directed only one further feature, Puccini for Beginners (2006). Most of her work has been in writing and producing for TV, as well as for Peter Chan’s The Love Letter (1999), the Selena Gomez vehicle Monte Carlo (2011) and the odd “last day of your life in a loop” teen drama Before I Fall (2017).