Twenty years removed from its original release, Chasing Amy feels at once outdated and relevant in 2017.
Twenty years removed from its original release, Chasing Amy feels at once outdated and relevant in 2017. The romantic comedy, still considered to be director Kevin Smith’s best film (whatever that’s worth), aimed to be equal parts charming and nasty, political and sexual, and it’s largely successful in that regard. For all his deficiencies as a filmmaker (and they’re on full display here), he’s never struggled with characterization. The characters in Chasing Amy are blunt and to-the-point, but they have qualities and behaviors that elude and confuse them in ways that deepen their personalities and open their psyches for the audience. The conviction with which Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) resolutely shouts, “I am fucking gay! That’s who I am!” is not only undoubtable, it’s moving and powerful. But just a few seconds later, when she leaps into the arms of Holden (Ben Affleck) and kisses him passionately in the middle of a tumultuous thunderstorm, we’re convinced of that, too. Has Alyssa’s lesbianism washed away with the falling rain, or is there something more complicated, more deeply human at work?
Smith, to put it politely, hasn’t exactly spent the last two decades convincing us he’s cinema’s most profound thinker, but Chasing Amy’s narrative—which, for the uninitiated, follows the complicated platonic-turned-romantic relationship between Holden, a straight graphic novelist played by Affleck, and Alyssa, a gay (?) graphic novelist played by Adams—displays a certain kind of sensitivity that belies the gleeful idiocy of his more, uh, faithful films. That said, his perspective was still that of a Straight White Dude seemingly dumbfounded by the idea that a woman could possibly enjoy sex and relationships without the presence of a male counterpart. Smith’s true mouthpiece in the film likely isn’t Holden but rather Holden’s best friend and creative collaborator, Banky (Jason Lee), a character that might be considered a prototype for Trump-era misogyny if he didn’t prove that sexist Reddit bros have been around since long before Reddit even existed. Banky does seem to experience his own kind sexual awakening at the end of the film, but the effect is more punchline than catharsis.
Nevertheless, the film resonates. Movies about lesbians aren’t quite as rare today, but they remain few and far between and usually belong in the world of big and sometimes controversial dramas directed by prestigious male auteurs like Abdellatif Kechiche (Blue is the Warmest Color) and Todd Haynes (Carol). From an industry perspective, female-directed films about queer identity have remained the same small-scale indie projects that occasionally experience relatively minor acclaim—you can draw a straight line from Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994) to Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014). As time has moved on, films with LGBT themes have begun to navigate the wider spectrum of sexuality. A film like Tangerine (2015), director Sean Baker’s daring micro-budget drama about African-American transgender sex workers in Hollywood, reflects a generational shift in ideas concerning gender and identity as LGBT cinema looks to pivot toward intersectionality.
Looking back at Chasing Amy’s sexual politics, one could make the argument that it was about the consequences of the binary; that it was actually about the fluidity of the queer experience and the danger of limiting any individual to rigorous social and sexual parameters. The film’s third act arrives with the revelation that not only has Alyssa had heterosexual encounters in the past, but they were of a nature that makes the impossibly insecure Holden feel emasculated. (The revelation takes place while the couple witnesses a fistfight during a hockey game and coincides with a literal punch to the gut, perhaps the most breathtakingly dense attempt at symbolism in Smith’s career, and that’s saying something.) In a less talked about but no less telling scene, Alyssa’s lesbian friends treat the news of her heterosexual relationship as an act of betrayal. Such issues remain ongoing and are deeply entrenched in the self-loathing indentured by seemingly endless cases of homophobia, toxic masculinity and bigotry.
More than anything, though, the climactic scene shatters the notion that people can only swing one way sexually, or they’re limited to the behaviors that would be thrust upon them by a society that fundamentally misunderstands or misrepresents them. What ultimately tears the couple apart is an inability to accept the different stations of sexual identity, a problem pushed beyond repair after Holden’s disastrous idea to solve it. Chasing Amy illustrates the way anxiety, fear and mistrust can overwhelm love and exploit empathy, and in the final scene, Smith, who, as previously mentioned, has at least always done right by his characters, allows Alyssa and Holden the space to restart and reassess, one of the few onscreen break-ups that doesn’t feel at all tragic. In this regard, Chasing Amy is more than just a product of ‘90s independent movies with an LGBT bent; in its own weird way, it’s sort of timeless.