Should I Watch This? AE’s Guide to Lesbian Movies

We all want to see ourselves portrayed on screen. But too often lesbian films end up not being what we expected. They have a track record of bad endings, too much heterosexual content, or just plain bad cinematography. Rest assured — AE has you covered. Never be surprised again as we review (with some spoilers) what to expect from these popular sapphic flicks. Each is labeled either happy, sad, or bittersweet (based on how your heart will feel after watching) and rated up to 4 stars. Enjoy!

When Night is Falling (1995)

For feeling happy

4 stars

If I could pick one word to describe this film it would be sensual. When Night is Falling feels like a lush dream. Despite following the trope of “woman cheats on man with woman to explore her sexuality,” everything about this movie is wholly unique. Mythology, religion, adventure, and a traveling circus all collide into a spectacular story.

Camille teaches at a conservative Christian college, is engaged to a fellow professor, and even up for a prestigious promotion. But when her dog dies she finds her life unraveling. Camille runs into fiery circus performer Petra in a laundromat and sparks fly. With Petra pursuing her ardently, Camille experiences a sexual awakening and must confront the daunting prospect of changing her entire existence.

The nuanced pacing of the film is wonderful. There are tasteful scenes of artistic interlude that help convey the character’s inner thoughts without spelling it out. We don’t get to see this device used much in film anymore. The movie is extremely artistic while remaining tremendously watchable.

The men in this film can be patriarchal and controlling, but it’s portrayed in a subtle and realistic way. I was surprised the film could capture misogyny and homophobia so realistically. And fair warning, there’s a bit of heterosexual sex in the middle of the film, but mostly to act as a foil against the better lesbian sex that comes after. 

The love scenes between the women are both passionate and tender, and we start to see Camille come alive and embody her true power. The main characters end up together in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or forced, and you can genuinely see a bright future for them. 

Saving Face (2004)

For feeling happy

3 stars

Most of Saving Face depicts the wonderfully complex and hilarious culture of Chinese-American New York, complete with juicy gossip in Mandarin subtitles. The heart of the film spotlights the dynamic between overachiever doctor-in-training Will and her mother who is newly pregnant! Her mom, now the scandal of the community, moves in with her. Uh oh. Their dynamic is wholly unconventional and I enjoyed the territory this film investigated with moments of who is mothering who. But as always, I wanted more gay!

Will is very shy, and you’ll be sure to smile along as she awkwardly navigates playful teasing from beautiful and outgoing dancer Vivian (who is also the daughter of her boss). Vivian is very direct, and you can almost see Will faint in multiple scenes. There is one short but sweet (and tasteful) sex scene. You get just the slightest glimpse at how silly and confident Will can be, and why Vivian is attracted to her.

I wish the film had dedicated more screen time to their relationship, but the chemistry is palpable. In the end, Will becomes more expressive, comes out to her mom, and kisses Vivian in front of the whole rec center. While a little slow, this is a nicely rounded out drama that any person or family could watch, with lots of laughs along the way.

 

Rafiki (2019)

For feeling bittersweet

3 stars

Banned in its native country of Kenya, but lauded at festivals around the world, Rafiki is a cotton-candy-colored love story between two politician’s daughters. In a modern town, Kena is one of the boys— tall, skinny, and likes to wear snapbacks, while Ziki dresses and dances as if for the ‘Gram. They are naturally drawn together, and go on several cute dates with electric eye-contact and nervous lip biting. They have discussions about “being real” and not ending up as good Kenya wives.

Their chemistry culminates in a romantic night in a van, decorated in rose petals and candles. The kisses and touches are slow and tame. They never take off their perfect clothes, which is understandable given the climate on same-sex relationships in Kenya, and the film certainly portrays it as a tender, pure act.

However, Ziki is too open with affection around town, and soon they’re found out. Viewers should prepare themselves for some intense homophobia. Both mothers are disgusted, and friends attack the couple. As they try to escape, a mob beats them up. They end up at the police station, where a shellshocked Ziki becomes withdrawn. Her parents force her to leave for London. She doesn’t want to go, but lashes out at Kena, perhaps to make the break easier if they end on bad terms. Kena’s only solace is her father, who reacts the best way a parent could. All political hopes are trashed, but he makes it clear that his daughter is more important than anything. There’s another tender moment when the local gay man who we see bullied throughout the film sits next to Kena. Neither of them speak, but tears flood down her cheeks in a moment of vulnerability.

The screen darkens and we fast forward a few years in the future where Kena is successfully working in a hospital. She visits home, takes a long walk through town and ends up in a field where we see her smile as Ziki’s hand reaches out and touches her shoulder. Viewers can assume that they rekindle their romance, but after so much fighting in the third act, this ending feels abrupt and uncathartic.

I’m okay with hard realities in lesbian films, but I found myself wishing for more screen time to unpack the stress of their breakup. This film is a stark look at homophobia in a quickly-modernizing country with a beautiful romance in-between, but you’ll likely leave with a twinge of heart-hurt. 

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

For feeling sad

2 stars

In this controversial French film, 15-year-old Adele falls hard for blue-haired artist Emma. The movie is LOOONG and meanders with B-roll footage of ambient city-life and filler conversations with tangential characters. There are reoccurring scenes of people eating, which on one level acts as a theme for Adele’s voracious sexual hunger, but quickly becomes off-putting. There’s only so much spaghetti one can watch being shoved sloppily into mouths.

Undoubtedly Adele and Emma have hot and heavy physical compatibility, shown explicitly in multiple NC-17 sex scenes. They devour each other. But as we see the relationship jump months later, it becomes clear they have little else in common. Adele is smart and thoughtful, but is also largely fulfilled by the domestic nature of cooking and being her artist’s muse. Emma starts to resent this and wishes for more elite, high-brow qualities in a girlfriend. To fill this confusing and isolating gap between them, Adele cheats. Be advised, there are several scenes of heterosexual flirting and sex. Emma, despite creating the conditions for this rift, acts cuttingly cruelly to Adele, calling her a whore and hitting her, yet quickly moves on with another woman she’s been working with.

The next half of the movie is Adele mournfully and emptily surviving in this post-breakup world. Years later, they meet for coffee. Despite their best efforts, they can’t keep their hands off each other, but Emma stops it from going further. The film ends with Adele going to a gallery show and seeing her portrait on the wall, but feeling like a stranger in a room of socialites, walks home alone.

Adele’s journey is so profoundly sad, and it feels like her adoration, devotion, and tenderness is never returned. Many watch this film for the sex scenes, but without much emotional connection between the characters, it feels largely pornographic. This film investigates giving the body what it wants, but leaves your heart untouched.

If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000)

For feeling happy

3 stars

This movie is actually three films in one! Each part follows the life of lesbians who’ve lived in the same house in different time periods. Part one takes place in 1961, part two in 1972, and part three in 2000.

The first vignette captures the deep pain of an elderly couple when one suddenly dies and the other is left to grieve, unable to claim that she’s family and forced to leave their house. It’s so sad it’s almost unwatchable, but for this very reason I recommend it—to understand the herstory of our sisters and to see how far we’ve come.

The third installment features a cheerful Ellen Degeneres and Sharon Stone as a modern couple trying to get artificially inseminated. Things work out for them, and it’s a pleasure to watch their domestic shenanigans.

But what really puts this film on the list is part two, featuring tough, second-wave feminist Linda (Michelle Williams) and just plain tough Amy (Chloe Sevigny) as a sexy, butch biker (and for the love of Sappho, look at this photo). In this story, the androgynous lesbian activists can’t figure out why a woman would want to dress in men’s clothes—tie and all—when women worked so hard to get away from those sex roles. But they take it too far, sneering at butches in a bar and harassing Chloe who is just trying to be herself. In the end, Michelle sees there are a lot of ways to be a woman.

The chemistry between the two main characters is off the charts. Chloe is blisteringly hot with her leather jacket, slicked-back hair, and the smooth yet soft way she carries herself. Their beautiful but urgent sex scene in Chloe’s biker bungalow is perhaps the hottest three minutes to ever grace the big screen. 

If These Walls Could Talk 2 is a must-watch, but nearly impossible to get a hold of anywhere. There’s a pixelated bootleg on youtube here, but do yourself a favor and buy the DVD online and share with your circle of lesbians. You’ll thank me later.

 

My Days of Mercy (2017)

For feeling bittersweet

2 stars

Many lesbians love this flick, and for a favorable AE review look here, but I couldn’t quite get on board. Twenty-two-year-old Lucy (Ellen Page) doesn’t have much going for her. She and her siblings travel around the midwest in an RV, protesting outside prisons against the death penalty. We get introduced to this nomadic lifestyle in slow, artsy footage where the aperture of the camera keeps shifting. At one of these events, she quickly makes eye contact with Mercy (Kate Mara), who is on the opposite side, advocating for justice for homicide victims. Despite this, they soon become friends and go into flirting overdrive.

At this point, I feel I must admit that I’m not a fan of either of these actresses who always seem to be just playing themselves, and throughout the film, none of their lines ever felt natural—I was always so aware of the script they must have been reading from. There’s one overwrought scene of Page ugly-crying, but mostly she just does her ambivalent bored face.

What’s more, the two characters have such bizarre sex, it’s hard for me to believe Page (a real life lesbians) went along with this! In the first love scene, she just forcefully fingers Mara in staccato bursts as they both jolt in over-the-top body spasms. I honestly laughed out-loud and had to unpack that with my cat who sat next to me.

But getting back to the plot (this paragraph is spoilerville for those who want a recap), a drunk Lucy confesses that there’s personal stake in her protests— her dad has months to live after being convicted of stabbing their mother to death. At Mercy’s suggestion, the family pays a lawyer to test for evidence of his innocence, only to find out at the end that he did it. Yikes. Lucy visits Mercy’s rich house only to awkwardly walk in on their formal dinner and her… boyfriend. The two fight. But weeks later Mercy shows up to support Lucy when her dad is lethally injected. Afterwards, the two part ways. We fast forward to Lucy working at a bar back in their hometown as Mercy unexpectedly shows up, ready to give it another shot. But there’s a lot of hurt between the two of them. At the last second, Lucy says that she gets off at six and where should they go? Mercy replies, “everywhere.” I slapped my head with how cheesy it was. 

Somehow this film struck an odd balance of both cheesy and heavy, but mostly just dry. Watch it if you’re a fan of Page and want to see her lithe body topless a lot and some tongue kissing. 

Kiss Me / With Every Heartbeat (2011)

For feeling happy

4 stars

I’ve seen this charming Swedish love story at least a dozen times. It’s cathartic, about love at first glance, the guilt of cheating, and the resistance of coming to terms with your sexuality. Although not in English, this film has striking and heartfelt dialog that made me want to watch it again and again.

Quiet, dark-haired Mia is engaged to her long-time boyfriend, but the second she sees bubbly, blond Frida she can’t peel her eyes away. The feeling is mutual. The catch? Their parents are getting married! But you can’t stop chemistry, and in a series of funny and awkward encounters, these soon-to-be-stepsisters are thrust into a passionate affair they can’t stop. There is palpable sexual tension when they share a room at Frida’s mom’s island cottage and let’s just say they don’t stay in their respective twin beds.

In the weeks that follow, they sneak away together whenever possible. Frida (an out lesbian) is all in, refreshingly open and proud of their relationship, ready to be girlfriends. But Mia is scared to turn her life upside down. Eventually, it comes to a head, and the pair explodes in a tearful fight.

In the third act, Mia fights for their love. She comes out to her dad and leaves her “decent” man, and literally travels hundreds of miles to reunite with Frida. Even better, Kiss Me is based around the real life story of the film’s producer/writer.

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

For feeling bittersweet

2 stars

This film shows how hard it is to be a single, overworked mom in 50s England without any support system. It’s a slow, quiet drama with admittedly some flat acting, but it truly gives you the sense of what our foremothers went through.

It stars Anna Paquin as Jean, the town doctor who takes in Lydia and her son who are at the end of their rope (facing eviction, lack of work, and an abusive ex-husband). After enduring so much misogyny, their fast friendship is a healing change of pace. Before long, they find themselves dancing sensually to old timey music and lingering too long in the hallway. A short but urgent sex scene is poignant as viewers see the strength and tenderness of women shining against the monstrosity of the men around them. Throughout the film the two main characters are very vocal about “I want this” and “I love you.”

Lydia’s son sees them in bed and runs away to the dad, only later realizing what a mistake he’s made. By then it’s too late and the secret is out. Their bliss unravels as the community turns against them. “Dyke” is written on the side of the house and there are threats to take the son away for good.

Be advised, there’s a flashback of the doctor’s first love being raped. And in the climax of the third act, the abusive husband beats Lydia and tries to rape her while the movie cuts back and forth to another character’s forced abortion and near death. It’s heavy. Luckily, a CGI bee swarm comes to the rescue and our protagonists dance as if surrounded by wondrous, falling snow. It is cheese city. 

In the end, Jean and Lydia kiss passionately (in the open) at a train station, where they say sweet goodbyes before being parted for an indefinite amount of time. The doctor decides to stay in the town which she believes is changing for the better, but it feels like heartbreak. The author of the book that the film is based on wrote a happier ending, which in her words is more rare and therefore more radical. This is a tough film that shows the healing only women can give each other.

AWOL (2016)

For feeling sad

4 stars

Lola Kirke outdoes herself in this film as a young woman in a small town, whose only real option is joining the army. But the timing is bad, as she meets another local: a slightly older mom of two daughters, stuck in an abusive marriage. The two characters hit it off and have palpable chemistry. And some extremely hot sex in a barn. Their connection is healing, deep, carnal.

The two try their hardest to survive and escape, but they can’t make it. Despite the piercingly sad ending, this film does it with grace and nuance. I felt like the relationship was honored, that the women fought for their love, but that the hard reality of poverty and abuse was too much. 

The end wasn’t easy to watch, but this struggle (which has happened to so many women both gay and straight) was portrayed in a beautiful and honest way, and for that reason I highly recommend this movie. For a hyper-detailed recap, check out AE’s previous hot take here.

Carol (2015)

For feeling happy

4 stars

I saw this film at an indie theater two nights in a row. While other viewers quietly watched the drama unfold, I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, Carol is a serious period piece, but there are countless moments of relatable tension, longing, and glances that you have to giggle. Falling in love is messy… and timeless. Plus, the cinematography is masterful, and the film rightly won a butt-ton of awards for its dreamy visuals.

Refined housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) runs into young, naive Therese (Roony Mara) at a department store. After Carol conveniently leaves her glove behind and Therese returns it, the two have an excuse to have lunch, which leads to hanging out at their homes, and ultimately a Christmas road trip. Despite deep infatuation and magnetic attraction, the two keep their feelings quiet and act platonically. The sexual tension is insane. Until New Year’s Eve, when their cozy robes come off and the two devour each other (classily). I wanted bajillion times more smoochies (echoed in another AE review here) but it’s just not that kind of movie.

But Carol’s husband has had enough with Carol’s lezzy inclinations. He files for divorce and restricts access to their daughter. The 1950s were a powerless time for single mothers. A desperate Carol breaks up with Therese to appease her husband. The third act is painful, but in the final seconds the couple reunites in a way that feels meaningful and leaves your heart uplifted.