Life is perfect for Megan (Natasha Lyonne), All-American Cheerleader and girlfriend to the football champ, in mid-west, middle-class, middle-school. The only problem is that she’s gay as a maypole, even if she doesn’t know it. Good news! Her parents are sending her off to True Directions for a bit of corrective therapy. It’s a two-month program of five steps to Straightdom, led by Cathy Moriarty and the “Ex-Gay” RuPaul, and let’s just say that it doesn’t work as she soon ends up in a wonderful relationship with Clea DuVall. The whole thing is a fantastic send-up of the late 90s (and, probably, contemporary) fears of homosexuality, crack-pot theories as to what causes it, and how it can be cured. (It’s not as cruel and punishing as many of the real-world therapies/torture programs, because those just aren’t a laughing matter.)
The teenagers are put through a series of cliched heteronormative exercises; chopping wood and playing soldiers for the boys, make-up, and house cleaning for the girls. The root causes for “deviant behaviour” is cited as a mother getting married in trousers, being born in France, and having traumatic breasts. Eventually, they move onto discussions as to why heterosexual sex is awesome, in ways that make it sound more like a tick-list of house chores than something two people could enjoy. At no point is it explained why homosexuality is bad, beyond “oooh, it’s just not normal”, and all the kids are clearly faking any enthusiasm for the regime just to be accepted.
It’s Poe’s Law of parody, mixed in with just enough surrealism and straight-facedness to keep things interesting. There are few, if any, laugh-out-loud moments, but you’ll keep on chuckling through the absurdity of it all. The black comedy aspect is also enhanced by the fact that these are teenagers, with no real ideas about sex anyway. Maybe Megan isn’t super into her boyfriend because his idea of making out is rolling his tongue around her mouth like a Labrador cleaning out a peanut butter jar, and maybe the gay world is inviting because it’s the only one letting the kids feel okay being themselves?
The surrealism, and visual wonder of the film, is also enhanced by the twee Americana of the facility, with everything colour coded in Pink or Blue. Everything at True Directions looks combatively fake, a veneer of respectability and civility to try and keep reality and nature at bay. Forest clearings have prairie backdrops in them so the teachers can look more majestic when talking, all the house décor is 50s style to make it look more American, when the real world is seen it’s imperfect and dusty but vibrant. It’s not the most subtle of messaging, but it is done so well you’ll forgive it the hamfistedness and roll with it.
An under-looked part of the film is the soundtrack, which is a treasure trove of 90s alt-pop from female-fronted bands. Whilst it isn’t up to Riot Grrl in terms of distortion or speed, when paired up with the context of the film the collection becomes a set of angry and empowering tunes. There isn’t a duffer amongst them, although the disco-centric “Party Train” by RuPaul does stand out amongst the rest of the guitar-focused crop. And, yes; having almost nothing but female singers does cement that this is unapologetically a female-focused movie. It also cements it firmly within a specific time and place, but that helps as it’s the modernity of youth quietly pumping itself up against the regression of the middle-aged.
For all it’s good points, this is a teen romance at its heart and those rules are followed. You can probably see the end coming once you’re halfway through, but that’s just how it has to be. The stakes are low, the victory is likely to be transient, and anyone over thirty is going to find it all a little simplistic and quaint. Well, tough. This film doesn’t give a monkey’s and the youthfulness of it just adds to the joy of it. This isn’t the Fem-John-Waters that everyone tried to label it as, this is something less cynical and less ironic. The main creators were all in their twenties when it was made, so they still had some hope to throw around. And what’s wrong with a bag of clichés rolled out with a lesbian worldview? Yeah, it’s preaching a message; but it’s essentially no different from the message of any other teen drama going. It’s brave and bold because people are arses, not because it’s doing something all that new. It wants the kids to be kids, to be free, and live their life.
So, watch this film (specifically the UK version, because the US shat the bed over girls in love and demanded 7 minutes be taken out of it) and enjoy it for all its joyful naivete. The movie knows what it’s doing, assumes you have a brain, and gets on with taking us through a world that is still worryingly close to reality. To the modern viewer, the vintage does show, but there is still enough modernity to avoid being a period piece. It’s got some wonderful, straight-faced performances that get across the angst and confusion of youth, and overall the film is just a wonderful send-up of some very stupid attitudes which will be beaten by not giving in.