Believe in love again, or at least watch people who do
So you’ve watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, despite your inner cynic knowing that it’s only setting you and your relationships up to fail with these unrealistic representations of romance. Yet you persist. You want your Peter Kavinksy, but you’re too old for a high-schooler. You want your hot tub kisses – even though you can’t afford a ski trip. And you’re feeling like you need more wholesome, tummy-fluttering, tear-inducing rom com goodness.
If you’re into the genre, you’ve probably watched Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary a million times. So here’s a few lesser-appreciated, cult classics of the genre you should put on your watch list.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN
The best films are those that critique films at large. That’s the case for The Watermelon Woman, the 1996 movie that was the first ever to be directed by an African-American lesbian. It chronicles the tale of a queer black woman who is passionate about cinema, but has a problem with how black women have traditionally been represented. After watching a plantation film, Cheryl Dunye sets herself the task of unpacking the Mammy archetype, which often sees black women on-screen relegated to a two-dimensional rotund caretaking figure. With its in-depth issues, interracial same-sex relationships, and humour, this film feels light years ahead – despite being over 20 years old.
Before Mamma Mia, there was Muriel’s Wedding, the feel-good film about an ABBA-loving daydreamer who yearns to get married. The 22-year-old from the uninspiring Australian town, Porpoise Spit, transforms from a social outcast who has never actually had a date into a what – and she does it by stealing money from a cosmetics pyramid scheme to pay for a tropical holiday to Hibiscus Island. While on holiday, she meets a wacky friend who brings her out of her shell. The film traverses not just female friendship, but also the dynamics of regional, class, and gender divides, through a very-Australian lens.
NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST
Michael Cera being cute was an entire film genre post-2007. Nick and Norah has the same twee indie vibe as Juno, except nobody is pregnant, and there isn’t as much “honest to blog” teenspeak. But it does have a scene where Cera’s character Nick gently holds Norah’s (Kat Dennings) hand and cleans it with a wet wipe he kept in his pocket from a Chinese takeaway he had three weeks ago, as he tells her, “I never wash my pants, I like to keep the night on them”.
As is expected of Cera, he plays an uncool teen, who is the only straight member of a queercore band called The Jerk-Offs. Norah happens to be frenemies with his ex-girlfriend Tris, who is a complete bitch. Their ‘meet-cute’ comes when Norah approaches Nick at a bar to ask: “I know this is going to sound weird, but, will you be my boyfriend for five minutes?” They discover Norah has been secretly enjoying the mixtapes he’s been sending to his ex to try and get her to take him back, and together they go on an adventure looking for the elusive band Where’s Fluffy? who are playing somewhere in the city. Norah also happens to have lost her very drunk friend. High jinks ensue, romance blossoms, high-pitched orgasms occur, and Michael Cera’s status as the unlikely heartthrob of 00s indie cinema endures.
BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER
A gay conversion therapy camp is an odd setting for a funny romance film. However, a 20-year-old Natasha Lyonne is amazing as Megan Bloomfield, whose parents send her to a camp to “cure” her lesbianism in this 1999 movie. When they stage the intervention – with the help of RuPaul, who plays “ex”-gay man – she insists that she is not gay, because she’s a cheerleader. Her refusal still lands her in a camp called True Directions. Despite the strict programme (you’re supposed to give yourself an electric shock when you have “inappropriate thoughts”), she learns to embrace her same-sex impulses, and – spoiler! – falls in love. The movie also has an intense colour palette and RuPaul wears a t-shirt that says “STRAIGHT IS GREAT”. What more could you want?
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE
This 80s tale is a British comedy-drama set in London with a same-sex love story between the son of a Pakistani migrant tasked with managing the family laundrette, and a xenophobic punk played by a baby-faced Daniel Day-Lewis. It was a forward-thinking exploration of race and sexuality in Thatcher’s Britain. Together they strive to make a success of the business and make a “laundrette as big as the Ritz”. It was nominated for an Oscar at the time and was scored by Hans Zimmer who has earned huge clout for his composition work on The Lion King, Inception, and more.
GET OVER IT
Sisqo is a multi-faceted and complex pop culture figure, and it’s about time we all started recognising that. Here, he takes on the bard by participating in a beautifully executed, post-millennium Shakespeare adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story follows an unlucky high-schooler named Berke Landers, a jock with a heart who begins to unravel when he loses his girlfriend. In a bid to win her back, he quits playing basketball to audition for the school play to be closer to her. Berke’s friends (one of whom is Sisqo) try to get him to move on, and thus a love triangle forms.
LOVE AND BASKETBALL
Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan (before she probably bit Beyoncé) play lovebirds Monica and Quincy in a film that explores gender roles, ambition, and more importantly has Tyra Banks and Gabrielle Union in it. When they’re 11, he pushes her over because she’s too good at basketball. But the next day, on the first day back at school, they have their first kiss – before getting into a fight again. Will they be able to stay friends, or even nurture their budding romance while Monica works her arse off in college training to play the sport that she loves? “I’ll play you one-on-one,” she says. “For what?” he asks. “Your heart,” she says, with tears in her eyes. My heart!
It’s no surprise this film came from 40 Acres and a Mule, the production company started by Spike Lee. A hallmark of Lee’s films is often the memorable music and attention to detail with the soundtrack. It’s no wonder then that the sex scene between Omar and Sanaa remains one of the most memorable in black cinema because of the Maxwell’s high pitched “ah haaa” from “This Woman’s Work”.
I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK
Critics at the time described this subtitled Park Chan-wook film as somewhere between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amelie. Young-goon is a girl convinced that she is a cyborg who becomes institutionalised after she cuts her wrist and connects it with a power cord in an attempt to recharge. While there she meats Il-soon, a kleptomaniac schizophrenic who believes he can steal people’s souls and take traits away from their personality with consent. The pair team up so that Young-goon can give Il-soon all her feelings of sympathy and wreak havoc on the doctors in the institution, who keep trying to force feed her human food when all she wants to do is lick batteries. It’s not your regular love story, but it’ll do.