Everything Is Better Than “Better Than Chocolate”

The last time I felt this strange about being gay was probably around the time of my 5th-grade baptism into the Southern Baptist Church.

October 16, 2019

Laura Bullard
Cinematic Shaming
Canadian Film Day

ast week, I sat down with my fiancée and watched Better than Chocolate, the not-quite-cannonical 1999 Canadian lesbian rom-com. I can say without hesitation that it has fundamentally changed me. I’m not the same woman I was before. I’ve made a very real mistake.

Y’all know that super problematic A&E show Beyond Scared Straight that you’ve definitely never watched on an airplane because you’d seen all the movie options? Well BTC damn near scared me straight. The last time I felt this strange about being gay was probably around the time of my 5th-grade baptism into the Southern Baptist Church.

For context, I’ve always been an A-for-effort kind of woman. I honestly prefer the underrated. I live in a small town in the deep south best known for an 85-year-old hot dog restaurant, and I genuinely believe it’s the best place to live in the entire world.

I actively, instinctively root for the underdog. My actual dogs are poorly behaved and not that cute. I adore them!

This movie is no underdog. It is an abject nightmare.

It is equal parts a love story, a coming-out story, hijinks-filled Meet The Parents-type story, and a protest story centered around the Canadian Customs crackdown on “obscene” queer movies and films in the ’80s and ’90s. Radical for its time, there’s a trans lesbian character, Judy, but she’s played by a cis actor, and the film can’t seem to take the transphobic violence she incurs seriously enough to warrant its inclusion.

The movie opens with Maggie, the protagonist, living on the futon of a queer bookstore where she also works. Just as she decides to move out, her mom (played by Wendy Crewson, who was objectively excellent in The Santa Clause, The Santa Clause 2, and The Santa Clause 3) calls her up. Apparently her husband has cheated on her, so she’s packing up with her weirdo son and moving in with Maggie!

Moments later, Maggie meets and instantly falls in love with Kim, a transient “painter” who lives in a van. And I will NOT watch this movie again to fact-check this, so take it with a grain of salt, but I swear to god, I don’t think we learn Kim’s name until, like, an hour into this thing. Approximately 45 literal seconds after meeting, they attempt to consummate their love in Kim’s van, which is illegally parked. As soon as they’ve hugged and taken off each other’s bras, the van gets towed. Now, you guessed it, Kim is moving in with Maggie too!

They go straight from the tow yard, where they decided to leave Kim’s car (it’s their only option; neither has the $120 to get it out) to Maggie’s new apartment, which she is subletting from a queer sex educator. They find a shelf lined with dildos, hide them all in a box, and place it under the bed in Maggie’s mom’s future room. Smart!

Then, they finally do consummate their love by painting each others nipples and butts with brown paint and rolling around on a big canvas. As they are showering off, Maggie’s mom and brother show up. They don’t know she’s gay, but sure as shit-colored nipple art, they’re gonna find out soon.

Y’all, the next sixty minutes of content nearly destroyed me.

At one point, Maggie’s little brother walks in (intentionally?) on a Maggie-and-Kim futon sex scene, and I had to fast forward that part because I’m not here for that kind of wacky humor (seriously, what the fuck). Later, he shows up at the local gay bar, which is called — and this is important — the Cat’s Ass. Not three minutes after a tertiary character mentions that (because he is 17) he’s not old enough to consent, he’s in a parking garage with the one bisexual in the movie who makes it clear that she will have sex with literally anyone. So basically the little brother’s entire inclusion in the movie is 50% a rape joke, 50% an incest joke, and 100% not a very good idea.

The best character, far and away, is Maggie’s mom. For all of her flaws (She might be homophobic? The film is bizarrely, remarkably unclear on that point.), she somehow comes off as less unhinged than the majority of her BTC peers. But I can’t let her off the hook entirely, as we near the climax (ahem) of the film.

Wendy discovers what she thinks is a box of her OWN DAUGHTER’S DILDOS and proceeds to get right on off like it’s no big deal. And right as we get to the climax of her, well, climax, there is an extended shot of her FEET, her cuticle-ridden toes curling around an iron bed frame, and I can’t even complete this sentence because I’m nauseous.

As I sat in our dark bedroom watching the credits roll, hollowed out and afraid, I thought about May Sarton, a writer whose work I return to whenever I feel the earth dropping out from under me.

“Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain,” she writes in Journal of a Solitude, one of my most sacred texts. “Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”

To be honest, I’m not there yet. I now see my life in two epochs severed by a great cinematic trauma — before BTC and after BTC. Have I watched Hannah Gatsby’s Nanette trailer on loop for 10 hours just to remind myself that we (queer women) are not all terrible? Yes.

Will I ever hug my fiancée again without dramatically flashing back to the nipple-and-butt paint scene? I can only hope. And until then, I’m just trying to let it all pass. I’m trying to let it go.

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