Writer/director John Sayles's 1983 follow-up to his impressive debut with "Return of the Secaucus Seven" is an important touchstone of lesbian cinema. Written with his trademark keen ear for dialogue, Sayles seamlessly blends character study with social exposé. Linda Griffiths plays Lianna, a naïve New Jersey housewife to the aptly named Dick (Jon DeVries), a snobby film studies/English professor she met while enrolled in one of his classes.
The unhappy pair share an upper middle class existence with two children whose affections Dick turns against their caring mother after the couple split due to Dick’s infidelity.
After witnessing Dick engaged in sex with one of his students at a college faculty party, Lianna goes on a date with her gay child psychology professor Ruth (Jane Hallaren). The rendezvous at Ruth’s home affords the pent-up Canadian transplant Lianna an opportunity to freely admit her latent homosexual desires. What follows is one of the most sincere and sensual lesbian sex scenes ever filmed. Whispered inner-dialogue from Lianna supplies an added layer of subtext to the sequence.
Giddy from the experience, Lianna unwisely informs the egotistical Dick of her sexual experimentation upon his return from the Toronto Film Festival. Outraged beyond reason, Dick unceremoniously kicks Lianna out of the family home to fend for herself. Lianna’s liberating but humbling search for self in the New Jersey community beyond the walls of academia reveals manifold striations of hypocrisy that surround her.
Ruth proves emotionally unavailable to Lianna. She nonetheless introduces her eager apprentice to the town’s active lesbian nightlife scene at a bar called the My Way Tavern. In the midst of fending off advances from horny males—for which Sayles himself performs a role — Lianna takes a small apartment and searches for a job in a depressed market. Sayles has no time for clichés. Supporting characters, such as Lianna’s new apartment neighbors, function in the service of the story rather than being allowed to hijack the narrative as would occur in a typical Hollywood film.
There’s an amateurish stiffness to Linda Griffiths’s portrayal that suits her character. Lianna is a vulnerable young woman who daringly exposes herself to a world of prejudice and ridicule. The film embraces the fear and joy Lianna experiences with a refreshing openness. It serves as an accurate time capsule of 20th century American lesbian reality that doesn’t attempt to provide any easy answers to the problems it recognizes.
Rated R. 110 mins.
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