A romcom centred around a Jewish career woman set out to find the right man ends up instead finding the right woman – enough to attract my attention. However, another narrative centred around women that comes from the creative mind of a man, dir. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde) makes me, as a viewer, want to tread lightly. There is always the chance that the stereotypical ‘male gaze’ will seep into the cracks in the foundation of the film – it’s narrative, dialogue, cinematography; everything can be affected. And to be truthful, it is hard to find a film these days that this does not occur in. Sex sells. We all know that.
I can say, with some satisfaction, that I didn’t find this to be the case in Kissing Jessica Stein. The film’s approach to lesbianism, at a pivotal point in LGBT filmmaking (the turn of the 21st century) addresses stigma rather than adding to it. We are given an empathetic view of both the women’s emotional reactions to their attraction to women. We have Helen (Heather Juergensen) who is liberal and free spirited, sort-of-speak, she doesn’t seem phased by her desire for the feminine. There is even a glimpse into the stigma surrounding bisexual women from the gay community through her close friend, Martin, who compares her lesbianism to him smudging shoe polish all over his face and joining the ‘gospel choir’. Then we have Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who has without fully realising, fallen for a woman, despite never contemplating the idea of a same-sex relationship. This really drives home that being gay is not a choice, and embracing these new feelings can result in happiness. The once uptight, conservative and unhappy Jessica becomes someone who wants to experience life outside of her comfort zone, rather than avoiding it. Her relationship with Helen is what sets this change in attitude in motion.
However, I found the ending tricky. Jessica and Helen do not end up in the usual bliss of romcom happiness. Although the film gives us their happy ending by showing a nice lighthearted montage of their lives together with upbeat and cheery music, eventually this platos. And where do we end up? Helen and Jessica deciding that they are just best friends and Jessica ending up with her first serious boyfriend, Josh, despite several scenes showing him treating her like she is beneath him. So we transition from a happy couple who are all over each other, to their miserable unfulfilling sexless cohabitation to Jessica returning to men. As according to her, she just wasn’t ‘gay enough’ for Helen. I have a few issues with this. Firstly, because Jessica and Helen’s relationship enters a dry spell it instantly is because one of them is clearly straight. Despite the fact that it is a common occurrence in relationships for dry spells to occur – if a straight couple is in a rut it is never assumed that one of them might be gay. Secondly, Jessica and Helen staying friends I find odd. Not so much that they shouldn’t be friends, but that the way they are friends is slightly jarring. A scene captures them meeting for coffee, Jessica sitting down asking about Helen’s new girlfriend and telling Helen all about Josh. It has only been three months since they have gone their separate ways. The girls’ breakup was emotional, Jessica did not want Judy to leave but Helen wanted Jessica to ‘crave her’ – this was a tough breakup. So would the two of them meet for coffee and discuss their new partners and have no emotional reaction to it at all? I don’t think so. At the very least, I sure wouldn’t behave like that. You would expect a smidge of jealousy, the longing for what might have been. Something. Not nothing. The nothing suggests that what the girls had wasn’t serious. I find the ending confusing as it could of ended with Jessica and Helen being happy – it was right there. Instead they had to tack their downward spiral on the end. I am confused even more by the fact that Juergensen and Westfeldt wrote the screenplay, and as it is an Indie film, they would have had more creative input than most – why did it end this way?
One element of the film I did find extremely tasteful was the bond between Jessica and her mother, Judy. Despite the family being Jewish (which could have proved tricky for Jessica) and Judy constantly setting her daughter up with men and pushing for her to marry, the issue of Jessica being gay is not an issue at all. In an emotional scene (after Jessica and Judy have argued) outside on the porch, Judy joins her daughter to comfort her. The subtle line is given, ‘she’s a lovely girl’ from mother to daughter – a few words that mean everything in this film. It is a shame that after this acceptance Jessica ends up reverting back to somewhere that she was unhappy.