Back in September 2009 when I reviewed Hannah Free, the lesbian-themed drama starring Sharon Gless (which Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim executive-produced), I started out by grousing about the lack of LGBT movies, lesbian ones in particular, in theaters. However, to some degree that has changed and to the crop of 2010 high-profile lesbian filmsThe Kids Are All Right, Chloe, Black Swan, etc.we can this year add Circumstance, The Topp Twins, Kaboom, and the forthcoming Pariah. The locally made Jamie and Jessie are Not Togetherwhich begins its exclusive Chicago run this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.is another big addition to the list. The movie, from out writer-director Wendy Jo Carlton (who also helmed Hannah), is a charming, relaxed romantic comedy with musical numbers that is the perfect entrée into Unrequited Lesbian Love 101, albeit one with some delightful twists.
The film follows the plight of the shy, blond, hat-wearing Jessie (Jessica London-Smith), who has nursed a crush on her long-term roommate, the sultry, dark-haired Jamie (Jacqui Jackson)and can't make up her mind what to do about it. Then Jamie, who we quickly perceive isn't at a loss for romantic company and has no awareness of Jessie's feelings, announces that she's decided to move to New York to further her acting career. Jessie, who clearly has become used to playing Jan to Jamie's Marcia, now has to decide whether or not to reveal her deep feelings before Jamie goes off on her new adventure and maybe, just maybe, just possibly … go with her.
As the clock ticks down, various complications are thrown into the mixlike Jamie's "friends with benefits" hook-ups with the sexy free spirit Rhonda (Fawzia Mirza), which anger Jessie even more. Then Elizabeth (Marika Engelhardt) comes into Jessie's life in a classic "meet-cute" situation during a rainstorm and things become even more complicated. Now it's Jamie who's jealouspushing Jessie's angst level into the stratosphere. The movie plays out against the backdrop of a quintessential, golden Chicago summer and the bright seasonal mood is a warm contrast to the often-sobering songs of love and lament that the characters randomly break into, sometimes singing directly to camera. (The movie's first song, set in a coffee shop where Jessie works, comes out of left field, and is a delightful exception).
Writer-director Carlton's risk in adding the confessional, guitar-based songs (which she co-wrote with composer Stephanie Vlcek) pays off and adds an unexpected level of depth to what could have been a by the numbers unrequited love story. London-Smith's halting tentativeness, mixed with unexpected moments of false bravado, is very winning, as is Jackson's pretty, popular-girl confidence and vitality, which darkens as we learn more about the character. I'd like to have seen more screen time for the quirky supporting characters who offer advice to Jessie throughout the picture (especially the two gay men with their long, flowing beards who act as a Greek chorus) and more from Mira and Engelhardtthough I suspect the latter two will show up in a sequel, should it see the light of day.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Jamie and Jessie are Not Together is that it is so unabashedly, unapologetically lesbian in its viewpoint. Yet, the movie's alternately sunny and sometimes sobering disposition will be inviting for film audiences of all persuasions as well. However, first and foremost, this is a movie that queer audiences can call their own. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
Twenty-nine-year-old writer-director Sean Durkin and his leading lady, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the infamous Olsen twins), both make arresting, stunning debuts in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The movie was all the rage at Sundance, where Durkin won the Best Director award, and now finds Olsen making the short list for the next Academy Awards. The critical hosannas greeting the movie are deserved, and both Durkin's movie and Olsen's performance are hypnotic and profoundly disturbing. I think this psychological thriller is one of the year's best films.
Olsen plays the multi-named leading character, who has escaped the clutches of a seemingly benign, hippie-like cult led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes, who has never been better) and is now recovering from her ordeal at the Catskills summer lake house of her sister, Lucy (out actor Sarah Paulson in a career-altering performance), and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy).
The story moves back and forth between Martha's attempt at recovery and the indeterminate period when she was a member of the culta device that builds tension to the breaking point by the film's startling conclusion. (The character is called Martha by her sister, Marcy May is the name given her by the cult and Marlene is the name the female cult members use when answering the phone.)
Martha's unusual behaviorthe weird breakdown of intimacy in front of her sister and brother-in-law, for examplebecomes more pronounced as her paranoia and alternate longing for her adopted "family" kicks into high gear. Clearly, the relationship between the sisters has been fraught with problems and there are emotional barriers between the two. However, you keep waiting for the self-involved Sarah to ask for details about what happened to Martha; when she doesn't, her lack of interest and true compassion seem to offer clues to Martha's indoctrination into the cult.
Or do they? "You're holding back," Patrick exhorts at one point, demanding that Marcy May give herself to the cult mind, body and soul and, chillingly, we see that she does as far as she's able to. (In the film's most disturbing sequence, Marcy May, who has earlier been drugged and raped by Patrick in what is dubbed "a cleansing ritual," now eagerly prepares a new female convert for the same insidious treatment.) What slowly becomes apparent in Durkin's low-key, naturalistic approach is that Martha, who clearly is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or something similar, doesn't fit in either place.
As Martha's jagged two worlds slowly begin to collidethe peaceful, isolated lake house with its false security and the seemingly benign but Manson-like cult members who represent the opposite extremethe blank look in Martha's beautiful eyes that neither the sister nor the cult leader, nor the audience for that matter, ever seems to pierce add another level of ambiguity to this creepy, unforgettable little movie.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.