Sapphic Cinema: Addicted to Fresno is an Underrated Lesbian Comedy Starring Natasha Lyonne

Natasha Lyonne is best known for playing lesbians. Megan, the babydyke protagonist of But I’m a Cheerleader, was her breakthrough role. And she became a household name through Netflix’s original flagship drama: Orange is the New Black. Viewers at home, like many Litchfield inmates, were not immune to the charms of Nicky Nichols – a recovering addict whose powers of seduction were legend within the prison.

The success of this character propelled Lyonne’s career to new heights. She currently stars in her own Netflix original drama, Russian Doll, which has been renewed for a second season. Brash and confident, her new character Nadia Vulvokov is very similar to Nicky – there’s just one difference. Nadia is straight. Which is pretty disappointing for a lot of Lyonne’s fans. With this in mind, let’s revisit an underrated gem in her lesbian back catalog: Addicted to Fresno.

Addicted to Fresno is a tale of two sisters. Shannon (Judy Greer) has sex she’s not really into with men she doesn’t really care about in an attempt to fill the void. After hooking up with each of her male colleagues, Shannon had sex with the headmaster on school property – only to be discovered by her students. Shannon lost her job as a teacher and is now “a registered sex offender! Yay!”

Martha (Natasha Lyonne), her younger sister, has taken Shannon into her home. A home with a second mortgage to pay for rehab treating Shannon’s sex addiction. Martha has even convinced her boss to hire Shannon at the hotel, where they work together as maids. Everything is back on track. Until it isn’t.

Just as the action starts to lag, Addicted to Fresno takes an extraordinary turn. After being dumped by her fuckbuddy therapist, Shannon goes on the rebound – with disastrous consequences. One minute the sisters are mastering the perfect pillowcase fold, and the next they’re stashing a dead body in a laundry cart. Armed with nothing more than Martha’s wits and Shannon’s confidence, they begin a frantic race against the clock.

Addicted to Fresno is hilarious. What’s not to love about characters selling stolen dildos or working it to a sexually inappropriate Bar Mitzvah rap? Despite lukewarm reviews at the time of release, it’s impossible not to fall for this film’s whip-smart dialogue and wacky adventures. But I’m a Cheerleader – director Jamie Babbit’s film debut, as well as Lyonne’s – was also met with ambivalence by mainstream critics, and is now considered something of a lesbian classic. Babbit’s next lesbian comedy, Itty Bitty Bitty Committee, had a similar fate.

Films made by a lesbian director can struggle to find the love they deserve outside of a lesbian audience. Whereas the male gaze is treated as though it holds universal appeal, the lesbian gaze is considered niche. But it is because of the importance Babbit places on women’s lives that Addicted to Fresno resonates.

How many male directors would think to make a lesbian working as a hotel maid the hero of a story? How many male directors would frame a female sex addict compassionately, rather than defining her worth by how male characters perceive her? Although Babbit’s style sees her underappreciated in the straight world, it is her own particular way of seeing that elevates her comedies to the next level.

And – the hallmark of a quality comedy – Addicted to Fresno uses humor to guide the audience through some difficult themes. Loneliness, old family resentments, a humdrum job that involves “cleaning pubes from soap” – so deftly does director Jamie Babbit steer viewers through these issues, their sadness is not immediately apparent. Multiple characters are trapped in an unfulfilling life; Martha included.

Fans who discovered Lyonne through the role of Nicky Nichols will be disconcerted seeing her play a character so outwardly together. Martha is Employee of the Month. She organizes her sister’s meals, and puts out her uniform before a shift.

But, in a lot of ways, Martha is such a typical lesbian. She’s hung up on her straight ex, Aisha, whose schedule she has memorized in the hope of orchestrating a chance meeting at the gym. Martha’s so deep in her feelings that she doesn’t see what’s right in front of her: a hot lesbian gym instructor (Aubrey Plaza) who is attracted to her and not interested in playing games. This romance is made all the more delicious by the knowledge that Lyonne and Plaza are both bisexual in real life.

While Shannon’s dysfunction is the driving force behind the story, it quickly becomes clear that both sisters are trapped in their own vicious cycle of poor decision making. As each character struggles to break free – often with absurd consequences – Addicted to Fresno feels like a joy ride around the pitfalls of small-town life.

Addicted to Fresno is an underappreciated film. But, like Babbit’s earlier collaboration with Lyonne, it has the potential to be remembered as a lesbian classic. A hot lesbian gym instructor, a cameo by Clea DuVall, and the slapstick murder of a sleazy man – it’s all there. So get watching.

Addicted to Fresno is now streaming on Amazon Prime.