Why the New Movies About Queer Friendship Are So Revolutionary
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and other new films are filling a huge but often unnoticed gap in our storytelling
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T o judge by what passes for mainstream LGBTQ fare on the big screen, gay stories can be reduced to ones and twos. There are narratives of and for one: those coming out tales that stress a loneliness that needs to be overcome. And then there are narratives all about how those ones become twos: those romantic flicks that stress instead the importance of coupling. Hollywood, like American society at large, is most comfortable with these kinds of stories, because they are anchored by the easiest ways of thinking about gay people: as lone individuals (the friend at work, the cousin who lives in LA, that famous celebrity who came out) or as coupled pairs (that lovely pair who joined the PTA last month, your uncle and his “friend,” that famous now-out celebrity who immediately got married). The former upholds the idea that gay men and women are some sort of unicorn beings, special and worth admiring precisely because of the rarity with which you encounter them. The latter shapes them instead into known quantities, in ways both civil and cultural, that make them legible. But in this focus on ones and twos leaves out — and here my math metaphor is sure to break down — studies of larger groupings, of an LGBT community. What these cinema portraits are missing the most right now are stories of friendship.
Whither are our Bridesmaids and our Girls Trips? Our I Love You Mans and our Trainspottings? Or, more to the point, where are the 21st century responses to films like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and the The Broken Hearts Club? To be fair, friendship remains an all-around under-explored terrain on the big screen. Those connections, because of their tenuousness and ephemerality, tend to be undervalued. Which brings us back to the ones and twos: we have plenty of stories about the power of the individual and, in turn, about the power of love. They’re the building blocks of two of the most well-trodden genres out there: the bildungsroman and the romance. But the absence is more glaaring when it comes to queer narratives. To understand why, we have to unpack the way those narrative templates reflect and construct society as we know it today: a society that relies on familial ties and capitalist ideals, the two often walking hand in hand down an aisle and on to a suburban home with a picket fence.
If the stories we tell help model the kind of people we can aspire to become, the messages being sent to queer kids right now leave them at the mercy of self-contained coming-out stories or romances that focus on pair-bonding above all else. That is to say, even as movies like Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name and Carol and Love, Simon (to name but a few of the more talked-about LGBTQ films of the last couple of years) preach necessary lessons about love of self and love of the other, I’ve begun to wonder where are all the films that call forth a greater sense of friendship, of communion. I could turn to TV, of course, where landmark shows like The L Word, Noah’s Arc, Queer as Folk, Looking and Pose have painted fascinating portraits of modern-day queer friendships. And I could likely seek out novels like Dancer from the Dance, Stone Butch Blues, A Little Life, and most recently, The Great Believers, all fascinating looks at clusters of queer friends. But if I’m hung up on films it is because they still dominate so much of our collective consciousness. I want more big-screen images of queer people hanging out, not (merely) longing for one another but attending activists meetings, grabbing coffee, having a drink, partying, or any number of other mundane things we do when we get together.
Thankfully, 2018 may have given us glimpses of what that can look like. In what’s likely to be another watershed moment for LGBTQ representation, films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased and especially Can You Ever Forgive Me? — all, perhaps unsurprisingly, based on novels and memoirs — managed to put the importance of queer friendships front and center. That may sound a bit hard to believe in the case of the first two: they are based on books that deal in ways both wry and blunt with gay conversion therapy, not the kind of setting one would dream of finding portrayals of queer friendships. But in their own ways they at least gesture towards the value of having people in your life who understand what you’re going through.
Both the eponymous protagonist of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Garrard Conley’s autobiographical avatar in Boy Erased arrive at their respective “ex-gay” therapy camps because of a flirtatious encounter with a friend that went too far. Their stories feel familiar to many of us who grew up questioning our own sexuality, and who feared and were drawn to the possibility that a close friendship would turn into something else. If films were to offer us more portrayals of queer friendships, more images of non-romantic relationships between gay men and women, we could more easily push back against the kind of conflation that runs through much of the rhetoric in conversion therapy, which sees homosexuality as a predatory practice and gay friends as lurid and alluring sexual traps.
As Conley writes in Boy Erased, one of the pamphlets he first encountered when he attended the Love in Action camp included a testimonial from a boy who’d gone through the program: “I began to recover from not having a male friend unless it involved sex,” it reads. “I started learning who I really was, instead of the false personality I created to make myself acceptable.” This is the kind of fallacy that’s easy to absorb when all the kinds of stories about gay life center on ones and twos: on what you think when you’re alone and what you hope to do when you find someone like you. The idea that every same-sex friendly encounter is a potential slippery slope into sex is perpetuated if we don’t have room (or readily-available images!) to imagine what other kinds of connections can be made within the gay community. This is precisely what Cameron (played in the film by Chloe Grace Moretz) learns when her friend Coley, with whom she’d developed a sexual relationship (the incident which sent her to the “God’s Promise” camp in the first place) sends her a letter re-framing her yearslong friendship: “Dear Cameron,” the letter reads, “I am writing this letter because Pastor Crawford and my mother think it is a good thing for me to do. I am currently working through what happened between us, as I know you are too, but I am very angry at you for taking advantage of our friendship in the ways you did.”
It is Cameron’s friendships while at God’s Promise, with fellow “sinners” Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), that drive the narrative in Desiree Akhavan’s film. It is the image of them setting out on their own (a final image spoiled by the film’s poster) that the director leaves us with, a reminder that such support networks are necessary to survive.
That’s precisely what you see in Marielle Heller’s booze-soaked adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? Ostensibly a film about the literary scams Israel (Melissa McCarthy) ran with the eventual help of her friend, the homeless dandy-esque Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Heller’s is a portrait of two lonely people leaning on one another when everything around them feels like a rebuke to everything they are. Israel’s loneliness — she lives alone with her cat and can’t get her agent to answer her calls, let alone sell that Fanny Bryce biography she’s been working on for years — is neither a symptom nor a consequence of her attraction to women, but it feels tied to it somehow. Similarly, Hock’s struggles — he’s a jack-of-all-trades who makes a buck however he can, including selling drugs and eventually Lee’s letters, and seemingly prefers having no intimate ties with those he sleeps with — are not presented as mere consequences of his being an out gay man, but neither are they altogether divorced from that fact.
The scenes between the two of them at Julius, the famed (and still standing!) gay bar in the West Village, are some of the more memorable in the film. That’s because they feel particularly radical. The two bicker. They share drinks. They hack schemes. They commiserate about lovers. It’s like something out of a gay Cheers, refreshing precisely because of its mundanity. Even in their final moments together, when they return to that old haunt and reconnect after arrests, warrants, and a health diagnosis have torn them apart, their melancholy repartee made me wish I saw this kind of fraught but nurturing relationship within the LGBTQ community more often. Here is, at last, a story I couldn’t neatly break down into a self-actualizing story about a lesbian or into an uplifting narrative about same-sex attraction.
We need more stories about queer friendship. Stories like Israel’s which put the importance of what it means to rely on and support someone who may have, just like you, lost contact with family and partners because of who you are. We need these stories not just because such friendships are necessary, but because sometimes we only know a story is possible if we see it reflected in the culture. “And was friendship that different in the end from love?” writes one of the gay narrators of Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, one of the year’s most sprawling portraits of what queer friendship looks like. “You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.”