What exactly is a gay film? A film about gay characters? A film by gay filmmakers? Or is gay cinema a marketing construct to attract a niche audience for a film in trouble? The last of these appears to be the correct answer when it comes to Julie Johnson, a film by Bob Gosse that sets up a tale of blue-collar housewives in love, then diligently avoids exploring that premise.
Set in the dreary working-class towns of northern New Jersey, Julie Johnson follows the self-awakening of the title character, a mousy high school dropout who's totally dominated by her Neanderthal husband, Rick, a smug police officer who likes to hang around with other cops and their wives, drinking beer and barbecuing burgers. She's trapped in an endless domestic nightmare, overlooked by her husband and ignored by her children. But Julie, restless and empty, yearns for a better life. She decides to study for the GED to earn a high school diploma, a secret passion she reveals to her sexy, blowzy pal Claire, another dissatisfied policeman's wife.
Julie presses ahead, abetted by a physics professor/mentor who realizes her computer skills are at the genius level. But while she blossoms academically, her life is thrown into turmoil. Her marriage breaks up, as does Claire's. Claire moves into Julie's house, and there's some hope of growth for both women. But when their friendship transforms into an unexpected romance, chaos returns in force. They hide their affair from the children but finally must face the truth. Meanwhile the couple gets a lot of dirty looks from their neighbors. They avoid their friends for fear of discovery. Worse, they become estranged from each other as Julie's quest for knowledge leads her toward college, while Claire pines for the comfort of her old pals.
This narrative certainly is a worthy subject for a film, and it's easy to see how such a story could attract an audience. Working-class lesbians pretty much have been nonexistent in the movies, as have any stories about the struggles of lesbian couples raising children. Such subjects deserve to be handled with honesty and clarity, virtues not found in abundance in Julie Johnson.
In a sense this film really isn't a story of sexuality at all; rather it's a tale of self-discovery, as Julie realizes her intellectual potential. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but it treats the sexual and family issues as mere bumps along Julie's path to academic glory. Unfortunately it is too obvious and routine, yet another ugly-duckling tale we've seen before -- and often. All the interesting aspects in this movies are sidelined.
The solid cast helps mitigate this imbalance. As Julie, Lili Taylor manages a plausible transformation from doormat to dedicated intellectual. Throughout her ordeal her appeal grows. She takes a lot of shots but gets up off the mat, and we like her for that. Julie's case, however, might have been strengthened if the film revealed more of her to us. Two critical turning points -- her revelation to her husband that she signed up for school and her realization that she loves Claire -- aren't shown; we just learn about them afterward.
Courtney Love delivers an appealing performance as the sensual, flighty Claire, adding humor and uncertainty to a rather predictable tale. Nearly bursting out of her tight pants and loosely buttoned blouses, Claire is so caught up in whatever she's feeling at the moment there's no telling what she'll do. In fact it's Claire who gives the film most of its energy. Once Julie decides to go back to school, it's obvious where the story is going, but most of the ensuing surprises are Claire's. The breakup of her own marriage comes as a surprise, even to Claire, and her romance with Julie is an unforeseen twist. But Claire is just a sexy kinda gal, and her attraction to women isn't too closeted. Once she moves in, she appears to be checking out Julie's coltish teenage daughter Lisa (Mischa Barton) at every opportunity.
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The male actors, anchored by Spalding Gray as Julie's mentor and Noah Emmerich as her slug husband, offer competent support but are limited by their one-note roles. Gray has one charming scene in which he mistakes Julie's awkward attempt to explain her love for Claire as an expression of love for him. But otherwise he's set up as a generic wise man. Emmerich, so effective as Jim Carrey's faux best friend in The Truman Show, seems particularly wasted here. He blusters through the story, adamantly opposed to Julie's attempt to better her life. But he just doesn't get where Julie is at, and his one attempt at reconciliation is a plea to go back to the old days; it's a scene that's meant to be plaintive but lacks much point. We know Julie is never going back, and she doesn't.
Director Bob Gosse conjures a realistic vision of stultifying blue-collar life -- maybe too realistic. This is an ugly-looking picture, with cluttered, aesthetically challenged interiors; most of the film plays out in cramped bedrooms and kitchens, and even the exteriors are shot without much depth or perspective. Julie's world is closing in on her, Gosse is saying, and there's no escape from its ugliness.
Gosse's approach is blunt but not very courageous or thoughtful. The volatile relationship between Julie and Claire isn't explored; it's merely noted. The confusion over sexuality and identity, the real attraction between these women, is missing. Certainly the single love scene seems restrained, lacking much sensuality or risk. Compared with any number of current lesbian stories back through Nicole Conn's Claire of the Moon, Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts, or even John Sayles's Lianna, Gosse seems downright uninterested in emotional complexity. Just about every character and situation is handled in simplistic fashion. The cops are brutish and domineering. Julie's friends and neighbors mistrust change and view self-improvement as a threat, while the physics professor and his friends are tolerant and supportive. This schema sets up a number of disturbing assumptions: that all working-class people are homophobic and anti-intellectual; that all white-collar people are enlightened and superior; and that, worst of all for a so-called queer film, women become lesbians because of bad marriages. This array of ideas might have been understandable 25 years ago, but as a modern-day story, much of Julie Johnson is pretty hard to swallow.