Lesbian Films: Alien No More

What a banner few weeks it has been for lesbian-themed films gaining general release: Albert Nobbs by Roderigo Garcia, Pariah by Dee Rees and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeleine Olnek. With rare exceptions such as Donna Deitch’s iconic Desert Hearts (1985),  Kissing Jessica Stein (2001–written and coproduced by its stars, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen) and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), most films about lesbian lives languish in small indie film festivals or circulate through precious bootlegged copies, as non-heterosexual women seek cinematic representations of their lives.

Perhaps the recent critical and financial success of The Kids has encouraged distributors to take a chance. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, lesbians are just interesting. As we know about other minority populations who live within subcultures, frequently on the margins of the mainstream, their lives (our lives) can produce innovative aesthetics and compelling real-life drama.

The most low-budget and indie of the three new films, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks the Same, has emerged as a cult favorite at  Sundance, Rio de Janeiro, Sarasota, Newfest and other film festivals. Starring the affable Lisa Haas as an unconventional heroine who bikes to her job in a stationery supply store, Codependent is an entertaining mashup of 1950’s sci-fi spoof and romantic comedy. It cleverly plays  on lesbians’ outsider status by featuring three extraterrestrials from a fictitious planet who are sent on a mission to rid themselves of romantic emotions. But one of the aliens falls in love with the earthling Haas–thus blurring the line between alien and lesbian. To be a lesbian, after all, is often to be–or at least to feel like–an alien. A subplot featuring two government agents tracking the aliens offers another metaphor for lesbian experience, which can range from feeling invisible to being hounded.

Like another cult lesbian favorite, Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), Codependent is shot in black and white, partly as homage to the genre and probably out of financial need. The effect is to sharpen the viewer’s focus and highlight entering a different world. And what a different world it is! Even alien lovemaking–which falls outside the dominant heterosexual paradigm–is accomplished by rubbing heads. When I had the pleasure of seeing the film at a rooftop outdoor screening in New York City last summer, a predominantly LGBT audience roared at the awkward sight and its sly coding for sexual variance.

But you don’t have to be a lesbian to relate to a culture that makes you feel alien. And that’s the brilliance of films like Olnek’s, Garcia’s and Rees’. I am hopeful that the arrival of exciting new filmmakers like Olnek and Rees (Garcia is already well established–and isn’t a lesbian) will mean many more films with lesbian content that offer alternatives to the dominant white heterosexual narrative. And that’s good news for anyone who wants to see a wider breadth of stories about our lives, about human lives. There is a moral to this story, though: If we want to see this kind of work, we need to support it. Get thee to the movies. Popcorn optional.

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Joan Lipkin is the Producing Artistic Director of That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis, Missouri where she founded the nationally acclaimed Alternate Currents/Direct Currents Series, The DisAbility Project, the Louies and Apple Pie. A strong proponent of collaboration, she also co-founded Women CenterStage! with the Center of Creative Arts, the Nadadada Festival at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Democracy on Stage with the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mid-Sized Arts Cooperative.