Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
I recognise its main actors – Mira Sorvino from Mighty Aphrodite (Woody Allen, 1995) and Lisa Kudrow from the TV hit Friends – but I had never heard of the director David Mirkin, or the writer-co-producer Robin Schiff. The press kit tells me that they come from TV too, from admirable sit-coms like The Larry Sanders Show and Almost Perfect, programs that work the same, brittle territory between comedy and drama.
Sometimes I strongly dislike the film work of TV people: it’s too small, too theatrical, with too little going on at the level of cinematic style. But Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion has got real style: a style that I associate with the golden age of one of my favourite popular genres, the teen movies of the 1980s.
I won’t get onto a nostalgia trip with this – would that be a Generation X symptom, nostalgia for the ‘80s? I’d rather get straight into a prime moment from Romy and Michele. Our main characters are looking through their high school graduation Yearbook. They come across a photo of the school weirdo, Heather (Janeane Garofalo), snapped in her most typical pose – back to the camera, and hurrying behind some school shed. Then we get the naive voice-over question – “What was she doing, going back there all the time?” Suddenly the photo comes to life, and the camera is barrelling after Heather, trying to keep frantic pace with her.
Heather is a tense, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking neurotic, an aggressive loner. In teen movie terms, you could see her as a tougher, more perverse, more grown-up version of Ally Sheedy as the high school basket case in The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985), or as a more extreme version of the maladaptive intellectual teenage girls on several TV sit-coms.
The camera follows the teenage Heather to a secluded retreat where she prepares to smoke a cigarette, only to find she doesn’t have a match. Suddenly there’s a guy named Clarence the Cowboy (Justin Theroux) with her, obviously an equally broody and maladaptive case. She asks him for a light, but he doesn’t say a word, and he doesn’t give her the light – he just flicks his discarded cigarette between her feet. Although completely pissed off by this, she still has to scramble to the ground to light her cigarette off his. This will be the basis of a running gag throughout the movie.
Romy and Michele is a movie that cheerfully embraces a full range of stereotypes – intellectual neurotics, redneck jocks, cheerleaders, plain Janes, nerds. The aim is not to subvert or detonate stereotypes but, in a full and playful way, to animate them and set them spinning within a fast, intricate, busy, narrative construction. Romy and Michele is what I call a prismatic narrative, like that delightful comedy about filmmaking, Living in Oblivion (Tom Di Cillo, 1995). It’s full of sudden, crazy flashbacks, inserts, and one long, mind-boggling, very devious dream sequence. These narrative interruptions keep opening up the story to clashing points-of-view, and to instantly ironic understandings of whatever’s going on. Such games also ensure a maximum number of pleasing twists and reversals, and abundant, wish-fulfillment fantasies that affect almost every single character in this abundant mosaic.
Romy and Michele have a high school reunion to go to. They are soon struck by the depressing and uncomfortable realisation that their life has not amounted to much in the preceding ten years. Their solution is to lose weight, dress sharp and fabricate a fabulous life for themselves – if only in order to make the cheerleaders of yesteryear seem suddenly small by comparison – but Heather turns out to be the problem with this little plan of deceit. This is the kernel of the plot, but it’s a film of incidents, of a hundred little spectacles or attractions, rather than of plot.
Romy and Michele straddles two distinct contemporary genres, because it plays out its story across two time periods. First there’s a teen movie section, flashback scenes devoted to the stultifying, unending misery of life at high school. When we think of this type of Theatre of Cruelty portrayed in cinema, this absolute, deadening grind of everyday power relations, we’re likely to think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films about families or workplaces. Or maybe we’d think of certain independent American art movies like the overrated Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995). But teen movies, even really normal, average teen movies, have often been acute and faithful in their representation of everyday misery, as well as everyday joy.
Romy and Michele also belongs to the genre of the twentysomething romantic comedy, alongside films like Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994) and Threesome (Andrew Fleming, 1994). One easy way to categorise them is as pop movies: films that reflect a certain, contemporary lifestyle saturated in mass culture, where the characters share with us their complicit knowingness about a thousand recent films, songs and sayings, stereotypes. Romy and Michele fits this particular bill, with its wicked, marvellous, spot-on jokes about Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), Cyndi Lauper videos and Madonna wannabe fashions.
But it’s not just a pop movie that holds an amused, lightly sarcastic mirror up to fanatical, lifestyle consumers. Like Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), it traverses a very particular emotional landscape. It’s not really devoted to the higher, more sublime emotions of love, honour, courage. Nor is it about intense feelings like desire, full-on hate or ruthless, power-driven competitiveness. No, this movie is geared down rather lower: to baser, more brittle but utterly pervasive affects, like envy, peevishness, embarrassment and sweet revenge. This is what gives Romy and Michele its strangely intimate quality.
As a genre, I love teen movies to pieces. But it is true that certain topics don’t get much of a look-in there. Some say it is a very male-dominated genre – but that’s not quite true, because I can think of many fine, perceptive movies about teenage girls, and a good number of them are written and/or directed by women. But teen movies with a lesbian content are definitely rather harder to come by. Romy and Michele is truly fascinating on this topic. It poses a question that would enter the mind of at least some viewers, namely: mightn’t there be, just maybe, a slightly gay tinge to the inseparable friendship of these two women who have been living with each other since high school?
We wonder about that, and Romy and Michele wonder about it, too. In a way, it’s the same question that haunts all the buddy-buddy male relationships you get in action movies. It’s not a matter of declaring that every same-sex friendship in cinema is really, secretly a repressed homosexual or lesbian relationship. That would be stupid. But you can wonder about the possibilities of intimate human interactions, you can play with them, and that’s exactly what this film does – it opens up the possibilities usually repressed and self-censored in films of this sort.
We learn for instance, that Romy and Michele caused a stir in high school by insisting that they appear together in the same Yearbook photo – the only students to do so. We observe their many living-together intimacies, with all kinds of jealousies, tiffs and struggles that do resemble the rituals of an amorous union. And there’s at least one completely explicit dialogue exchange in the film. Michele and Romy are jigging away together on ta club dance floor (where we often see them). Michele suddenly wonders, in that half-distracted, half-engaged way she has, whether they are lesbians, and then she idly muses: “Well, maybe we should have sex together and find out”. Romy is at first aghast – although it doesn’t stop her dancing – but she nonetheless adds, after a moment’s vague reflection: “If I’m not married in ten years time, ask me again, OK?” This goes down as the one of the most delightful exchanges I’ve ever heard in a Hollywood movie.
But, all possible subtexts aside, this film is mostly a perfect ode to friendship – friendship with all its irritations, rivalries, commitments and pleasures. I was recently part of a birthday parlour game in which everyone present had to come up with a moment from an Australian film that mean a lot to them. People came up with prime, iconic moments from Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981), Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981), The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987). But the most surprising and touching testimony came from someone who described a moment from that low-budget Australian twentysomething romantic comedy, Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996). She evoked the scene where the film’s two stars, Frances O’Connor and Alice Garner, talk to each other as they’re driving along, about boy troubles and various other woes. And she said of this scene, as a tear formed in her eye (and in the eye of everyone else at the table), that it evoked for her the daily joy of just hanging out with her best, female friend.
I remembered that fond tribute all throughout Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, because the film captures a certain quality of camaraderie between women, a certain kind of lived girl-culture, just like Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992) did for boys and boy-culture. The camaraderie between women that we behold in Romy and Michele is beautiful and superficial, eternal and silly. It’s a camaraderie of hanging out and (as we Australians say) dagging around.
Cinema as an art, and as entertainment, has many vocations, many destinies, many things that it does supremely well and uniquely. And one of them is surely this: to make us truly appreciate what hanging out and dagging around are all about.
© Adrian Martin May 1997