This Pride, we need to have a very serious discussion about an issue facing the LGBTQ+ community: Why are lesbian movies such a bummer?
Seriously, most prominent lesbian and queer-women cinema falls into certain, very dismal categories: Lesbians But They Have to Hide Because It’s Also the War of 1812 or Something (The Favourite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite); Lesbian Actually Just Wanted Man This Whole Time, Glad We Figured That Out (Chasing Amy, The Kids Are All Right); Sad 😞 (Blue Is the Warmest Color, Disobedience, Pariah).
These movies aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, many of them are critically acclaimed and have gone on to win or be nominated for many high-profile awards. Queer women themselves will often cite one or more of these movies among their favorites in the WLW genre. (WLW stands for “Woman Loving Woman,” for those of you who were not raised by the tag section of Wattpad.)
Still, most of these movies focus on the struggles of queer womanhood and none of them are a breezy watch, to say the least. It seems that finding a WLW movie that actually celebrates queer joy — not to mention squeezes in a few laughs — is an extreme sport.
Well, call me Tony Hawk: Pro Skater, because I’ve cobbled together the best lighthearted lesbian and WLW movies available to stream. For context, to earn a spot on this list, each of these movies had to meet strict criteria:
1. The WLW story line must be the main story line or part of the story line of the main character.
2. None of the WLW die.
3. The movie is not required to have a Happy Ending™, but is instead required to maintain Happy Vibes™ throughout the majority of the movie.
The Prom (2020)
Fair warning: The Prom is not a great movie. The Prom is an okay movie based on a great Broadway musical about a group of washed-up Broadway actors who storm a small town to demand it allow a lesbian couple to attend prom. The movie itself suffers from all the classic pitfalls of Broadway film adaptations (convoluted plot, expensive yet creatively lacking musical numbers, J*mes C*rden), but the core of this movie serves its young queer female characters, the aforementioned aspiring prom-goers, surprisingly well. Yes, the plot of the movie focuses on WLW struggles, but there is nary a moment where you doubt the inevitable triumph of our young gay heroines. Plus, the music is fun and quirky, and Meryl Streep goes to town on Keegan-Michael Key. Say thank you, gays!!! (Available on Netflix)
A New York Christmas Wedding (2020)
Whereas The Prom’s downfalls are the result of an inflated budget that led to a lack of bold creative choices, A New York Christmas Wedding is its exact foil. This movie, clearly produced on a shoestring budget (though not in a jarring way), makes SEVERAL creative choices, each more, uh, creative than the last. In A New York Christmas Wedding, Jennifer (Nia Fairweather) is unhappily engaged to a man whose mother is insisting upon a “New York Christmas wedding.” (???) After a fight over wedding details, Jennifer storms out, ends up meeting her guardian angel, and the next day finds herself waking up in bed next to her estranged best friend, Gabby (Adriana DeMeo), who is now her beloved fiancée. I’d go into more details, but this movie has A LOT of details: reanimated dead dads, aborted gay fetuses, Mr. Big as a hometown priest who decides gays are coolio and the Catholic Church will now be performing gay marriages, etc.
It’s a lot. And it’s great. While the insane twists and turns of this romantic comedy ultimately send it into unintentional camp, the love story at the center is actually pretty grounded. A rare feat in the WLW cinematic universe, where seriousness is often the only path to realistic romance. (Available on Netflix)
Unlike most of the movies on this list, the plot of Booksmart doesn’t focus on the WLW character’s journey to accept her sapphic nature. Instead, Booksmart is a classic high-school romp about geeky BFFs, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who try and attend one cool high-school party before they graduate. Both Molly and Amy want to hook up with their crushes; it just so happens that Molly’s crush is your run-of-the-mill Bro With a Heart of Gold while Amy’s is your run-of-the-mill Aloof Skater Girl. The movie’s most impressive feat is managing to treat Amy’s WLW story line as completely normal while not mapping it onto a straight narrative. Amy does reckon with specifically queer concerns, such as an equal level of interest and confusion as to what lesbian sex is, but those concerns aren’t ruled by a fear of her queer identity. Probably most important is that the movie prioritizes the romantic friendship between Amy and Molly, while not conflating it with Amy’s sexuality. (Available on Hulu)
Imagine Me & You (2006)
Thirteen years before he would bless the world with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Ol Parker gave us Imagine Me & You, a romantic comedy about Rachel (Piper Perabo), a woman who falls in love with her florist, Luce (Lena Headey), whom she meets on her (heterosexual) wedding day. Much like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, this movie is all vibes — the title and climactic scene are both based off the song “Happy Together,” by the Turtles. Still, the WLW cinematic universe could use a little bit of fluff, and this movie is just the ticket. (Available to rent on Amazon Prime)
Playing on the tropes of sexy spy movies, D.E.B.S. is about a secret government-intelligence agency that recruits young women who ace the secret test for espionage embedded in the SATs. The movie follows Amy (Sara Foster), a prodigy who received a perfect score on said test, as she risks it all to pursue a romance with super villain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster). It’s like Charlie’s Angels meets Austin Powers meets The L Word; what’s not to like? (Available to rent on Amazon)
Saving Face (2004)
Another early-2000s gem, Saving Face follows Wil, a young workaholic surgeon, and Vivian, a professional dancer, as they fall in love while dealing with the societal pressures of their Chinese American community. Despite some heavier elements — this is the only dramedy to make it on our list — Saving Face has some of the sweetest and funniest moments in the bunch. Saving Face is also the only movie on this list to feature a more masculine-presenting lesbian, not to mention a definitive happy ending. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
Kissing Jessica Stein is the perfect WLW movie, with one huge caveat. In this 2002 rom-com, the titular character is a neurotic local journalist who is unlucky in heterosexual love. Her foil is Helen, an impulsive art curator who, though straight, is bored with men (from all the cool sex she is having) and is looking to give girls a go. Helen puts a personal ad in the paper which happens to quote Jessica’s favorite poet and Jessica, despite being completely risk-averse, takes it as a sign and meets up with Helen. From there, the women try to navigate their first WLW relationship together, all while college boyfriends, Jewish mothers, and questions about who should wear the strap-on try to stand in their way. Seriously, this would have been the perfect movie — and it still can be if you turn it off at 1:26. But if you insist on watching the last ten minutes, you’ll see that Helen and Jessica end up breaking up because Jessica is not “gay enough.” Jessica ends up with a guy, Helen ends up with a girl, and the two of them end up being best platonic gal pals. It’s a queer ending in its own right (WLW are known for staying besties with their exes), but I’ll be team Jelen till I die. (Available on Starz)
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
If there is one movie all queer women can agree is perfect and amazing, it’s Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. Starring Natasha Lyonne, Clea Duvall, and RuPaul (seen here out of one drag and into another, as a “straight” man), this movie is the blueprint for all the others on this list. Lyonne plays Megan, an all-American cheerleader who is completely oblivious to her homosexual tendencies. Her friends and family, however, are not, and they send her away to True Directions, a conversion camp, where she meets and falls in love with a sullen Graham (Duvall). The chemistry between Lyonne and Duvall is palpable and intimate — a combination that allowed for one of the most beautiful sex scenes in queer cinema (which almost led to a movie-killing NC-17 rating, due to the MPAA’s sexist and homophobic double standards). This movie, complete with high-camp aesthetics, classic romantic-comedy high jinks, and SPOILER ALERT the girl getting the girl, is the perfect lesbian comedy that truly celebrates queer love. (Available to rent on Amazon)