With all the hullabaloo about lesbian movies this season – Is Ammonite (2020) just another lesbian period piece? Does Happiest Season (2020) reproduce overwrought narratives about coming out? – it seems high time to venture deeper into a genre that is often overlooked and misunderstood. You might not guess it from the way it gets discussed online, but not every lesbian movie is in fact the same. While there does seem to be a particular fascination with lesbian period pieces within mainstream Hollywood and “coming out stories” are somewhat common, there are numerous directors (many of whom are lesbians themselves) who have successfully shared their vision outside of these confines. Some of the films on the list represent these independent endeavours while others were made with more substantial budgets.
My criteria for what constitutes a “lesbian film” essentially includes any film where a lesbian love story or lesbian experience is one of the central narratives of the film. As such, I have not included seminal marginally gay classics such as Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), where Sandra Oh has a side role as a pregnant lesbian who wears suspenders. Nor have I included Carol (2015) – perhaps the most beloved lesbian film of the last five years – because I am assuming that if you are reading this list you’ve probably already seen it at least 12 times. As it often remains difficult to find lesbian films online, all of the following films are available to stream or rent on popular streaming services. With the unique stress of this year’s holiday season looming, at least we have lesbian cinema to keep us warm.
Chutney Popcorn (1999, dir. Nisha Ganatra) – Available to rent on Amazon for $0.99
Chutney Popcorn is an underrated gem within the lesbian cinematic universe. Directed by and starring Nisha Ganatra – who more recently directed Late Night (2019) and High Note (2020) – the story revolves around a young Indian-American lesbian (played by Ganatra) and her struggle to balance her relationship with her family and her relationship with her girlfriend. Wanting to win the love of her mother (played by the legendary chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey), she volunteers to be a surrogate mother for her sister and brother-in-law. What follows is a series of complicated and hilarious hijinks that playfully question outdated definitions of what a family really is. Chutney Popcorn is laugh-out-loud funny and unexpectedly heartwarming, and if that isn’t enough for you it also features Cara Buono playing a dangerously attractive lesbian UPS driver. Gird your loins ladies and theydies!
Desert Hearts (1985, dir. Donna Deitch) – Streaming on HBO Max
Released in 1985, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts is a pioneering lesbian film that undoubtedly paved the way for films like Carol. Widely regarded as one of the first wide-released films to positively portray lesbians, the funds for the film were raised primarily through donations and individual investments, and it took Deitch nearly six years to get the film in theaters. Set in 1950s Nevada, Desert Hearts follows English professor Vivian (Helen Shaver), who has come to Reno to obtain a divorce, and Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited waitress and artist. The two women’s desert love affair is sumptuously shot by frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit, and their crackling chemistry is passionately restrained. For those looking to delve more deeply into lesbian cinema Desert Hearts is a great place to start, not only because of its historical importance, but also because it’s damn good.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019, dir. Shelly Chopra Dhar) – Streaming On Netflix
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (which translates to “How I Felt When I Saw That Girl) follows a young Punjabi woman named Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja) who is a closeted lesbian struggling with her family’s demands that she gets married. One day she meets Sahil (Rajkummar Rao) a struggling playwright who her family mistakenly thinks she’s dating. Once Sahil learns Sweety is a lesbian and in love with a woman named Kuhu (Regina Cassandra), he decides his new play will be a lesbian love story starring none other than Sweety and Kuhu. Apart from the aforementioned lesbian storyline, the film is not radically unique in its storytelling, but rather is a welcome twist on the forbidden love story common in Bollywood films. Considering India’s fraught history with LGBTQ representation in film – one of the few prominent Indian films to feature a gay storyline was 2008’s Dostana, which involves two straight men pretending to be gay in order to win over a girl, and Deepa Metha’s 1996 lesbian film Fire led to theaters being literally (and ironically) set on fire – the film’s heartwarming and affirming message is indeed something to celebrate.
Elisa y Marcela (2019, Isabel Coixet) – Streaming on Netflix
Elisa Y Marcela was prolific Spanish director Isabel Coexit’s 12th feature film when it was released on Netflix last year. The film tells the true story of two women, Elisa and Marcela, who became the first recorded same-sex marriage in Spain in the early 20th century by attempting to pass as a heterosexual couple. The film tells the story of their lives from their first meeting as schoolgirls in the late 19th century, to Elisa’s decision to pass as a man named Mario so that they could marry, to their eventual imprisonment once they were found out. Though the film was by and large not particularly well regarded by critics, this is more reflective of the fact that straight men should stop reviewing lesbian films than it is the actual emotion or artistic value of the film. If critics didn’t like the octopus scene, then that’s on them. (No I will not elaborate, you have to see it to believe it). So if you like eight-limbed sea creatures, cross-dressing, historical Spain, or just want something fun for the holigays, Elisa Y Marcela is for you.
Go Fish (1994, dir. Rose Troche) – Streaming on Pluto TV
First, let me get this out of the way. The reason I originally watched this film was because I read that it was the first lesbian film Céline Sciamma ever saw, and as a card-carrying member of Portrait Nation, I felt I had to check it out. What I found, however, is that Go Fish is a thoroughly enjoyable and clever film worthy of our recognition apart from any connection it might have to our French lesbian overload. Released in 1994, the film serves as a delightful time capsule of 1990s lesbian culture that those of us of a younger generation can only experience vicariously. Go Fish focuses on a group of young lesbians living in New York City, led by Max (Guinevere Turner, who also co-wrote the film) and Kia (T Wendy McMillan). Replete with close-ups of Doc Martens, lesbians cutting their nails on the first date, and timeless slang (“What is she, regular, crunchy, or extra crunchy?“), the film is both charmingly of-the-time while also being eternally relatable.
Kiss Me / With Every Heartbeat (2011, dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining) – Streaming on Tubi
Alexandra-Therese Keining’s Kiss Me (also known as With Every Heartbeat) is a Swedish film that follows two women – Frida (Liv Mjönes) and Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) – as they work out their burgeoning feelings for one another. At her father’s 60th birthday party, straight-laced Mia, who has just gotten engaged to her boyfriend, meets free-spirited Frida, who also happens to be the daughter of her father’s long-term girlfriend. Sparks fly between the two women when they go on a weekend getaway with Frida’s mother, Elizabeth. In addition to some top-notch acting, Kiss Me has everything you want in a lesbian movie – women kissing in front of some deer, tender lovemaking, and a José González soundtrack. You really can’t go wrong with this one.
Lovesong (2016, dir. So Yong Kim) – Streaming on Netflix
If you’re looking for something that will give you the warm fuzzies, Lovesong is not it. If you are however in the mood for some emotional devastation, then Lovesong might be right up your alley. The film follows Sarah (Riley Keough), and her former best friend Mindy (Jena Malone) who reunite after years apart for an impromptu road trip with Sarah’s young daughter. They sleep together one night after spending the evening recounting their youth, only for Sarah to ignore it in the morning. Upset with Sarah’s reaction, Mindy abruptly leaves the next morning and they don’t see each other again for another three years when Mindy invites Sarah to her wedding. Without spoiling too much (though you might be able to guess how it ends), Lovesong is a strong contender for being the pinnacle of unrequited love and gay longing, not to mention the unspeakable pain of lost love and disappointment. If these things sound fun to you (no judgment!), then by all means, forge ahead.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017, dir. Angela Robinson) – Streaming on Hulu
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women might be more accurately called a bisexual-polyamorous-BDSM film, but I’ve included it in this lesbian film list for the sake of simplicity. (Besides, I’m not sure the movie would have any company on that list). Professor Marston is directed by someone we should all know and honor – Angela Robinson, who in addition to directing the iconic Lindsay Lohan Film Herbie Fully Loaded (2005), also directed the lesbian spy film D.E.B.S. (2004) and the Spashley reunion that was Girltrash: All Night Long (2014). In Professor Marston, Robinson takes a stab at historical biography, telling the story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his two wives, Elizabeth and Olive, who were (disputably) in a polyamorous relationship with one another in the 1930s and 40s. The film is chock-full of sapphic chemistry, kinky sexscapades, and of course, emotionally charged scenes involving lie detectors. All in all, this one’s a pretty easy sell.
Saving Face (2004, dir. Alice Wu) – Streaming on Amazon Prime
You may have heard of Alice Wu because of her recent lesbian coming-of-age drama The Half of It, which premiered on Netflix earlier this year. What you may not have heard of is her similarly charming film Saving Face, which came out all the way back in 2004. Saving Face follows Wil, a successful young lesbian surgeon who is not out to her conservative Chinese family. When Wil’s mother gets kicked out of her parent’s house for being pregnant out of wedlock she moves in with Wil, which puts a strain on her burgeoning relationship with Vivian, a ballet dancer, who is also the daughter of her boss. Wu’s debut film – which was the first Hollywood movie to center on Chinese American since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and was produced by none other than Will Smith – thoughtfully (and humorously) depicts the stress that comes with being queer and being from an immigrant family, much of which was inspired by Wu’s own experience.
Thelma (2017, dir. Joachim Trier) – Streaming on Hulu
To put it simply, Joachim Trier’s Thelma is about a lesbian with supernatural abilities. Though one is not predicated on the other, her supernatural abilities are, shall we shay, triggered by her gay longing. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a sheltered college student going to school in Oslo when she meets another student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and begins to develop feelings for her. At the onset of these feelings, she discovers that she has psychokinetic abilities that allow her to transport and transform the objects and people around her. While thinking about Anja one day she unintentionally makes her vanish into thin air and must then get a handle on her powers so she can get Anja back. Thelma is not your typical lesbian movie and tends to focus more on Thelma’s own journey than on her emerging relationship, but it is nonetheless a thrilling and emotionally resonant treatise on desire and self-worth.
Wild Nights With Emily (2018, Madeleine Olnek) – Streaming on Hulu
Wild Nights With Emily is a refreshingly upbeat and zany take on the life of Emily Dickinson, focusing in particular on her romantic relationship with her well-documented paramour Susan. Directed by Madeleine Olnek – who also directed the delightfully strange black and white lesbian sci-fi film Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, which is available to rent on Amazon – the film stars Molly Shannon as a middle-aged Emily Dickinson who lives next door to her sister-and-law and lover Susan (Susan Ziegler). The film follows Emily as she goes about her days, dashing to her desk to write poems and gleefully pulling a giggling Susan into her bedroom to undress her. It’s a welcome departure from the common (and likely made-up) image we have of Emily Dickinson as a depressed and lonely homebody, as depicted in films like A Quiet Passion (2016). And it’s gay as hell. Check it out!
by Kira Deshler
Kira holds a Masters’s degree in Media Studies from UT Austin where she studied queer female fandom and representation. She loves lesbian cinema, any and all TV shows about crime, and coming of age stories about teenage boys who love music. Every Christmas she watches Carol (2015) and has an emotional breakdown. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd, and can find her thesis site on queer female fandom here.