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A Gay Question

When is a movie about two women in love not "lesbian" enough?

Dallas screenwriter Gretchen Dyer fully expected that some heterosexuals would resist the plot of her debut feature Late Bloomers. The film, which was directed and co-produced by her sister Julia Dyer, concerns two middle-aged women who unexpectedly fall in love while working at the same suburban high school.

But Gretchen knew the film really barbecued some sacred cows when a lesbian angrily approached her after the film was screened at a festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, often cited as the unofficial gay capital of America.

"She said the movie was proof of my own internalized homophobia," Gretchen recalls with some bemusement. "And she also told me, 'There's not enough licking and sucking.' I said that I like licking and sucking, too, but that's really not what the film's about. It's about discovering a whole new side of yourself when you least expect it."

Filmed in Dallas in 1994 using almost exclusively local actors and crew, Late Bloomers is a modest (total cost was $500,000, a pittance by most studio standards) study of unremarkable lives suddenly dragged under the harsh scrutiny of a disapproving community. Dallas stage, film and TV actors Connie Nelson and Dee Hennigan give incandescent performances as Dinah Groshardt and Carly Lumpkin, the gym teacher and principal's secretary who ignite like firecrackers when they realize their attraction to each other. Unfortunately, the glare blinds friends, co-workers and family in the process, compelling otherwise decent people to commit cruelties both accidental and intentional.

Along with their 32-year-old brother Stephen, who acts as co-producer for the film, Gretchen, 38, and Julia, 34, have been through meteoric highs and gutter lows as Late Bloomers was accepted at almost every prestigious film festival in the country, including, in 1996, Sundance. At each festival, the story was the same -- audiences were enthusiastic, but distributors were cool to the film's deliberate unhipness -- until the small but prestigious Strand Releasing chose to open the film domestically.

The company, which took over distribution of Late Bloomers in January, has mapped an unorthodox marketing strategy -- a film about midlife lesbian love makes its U.S. debut in Texas, not widely considered the most gay-friendly of states. After opening in Houston, Dallas and Austin, the movie will amble northward to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other more traditional art-film stomping grounds.

The unidentified heartland setting of Late Bloomers couldn't be more commonplace, or the characters more humble in their aspirations and achievements. And yet the movie is a nimble, ingratiating little study of sexual anarchy. In fact, the film couldn't have been more subversive if it featured a pride parade full of drag queens and dykes on bikes. Director Julia Dyer sums up the theme as "It could happen to you," which only hints at the ambisexuality this well-acted movie serves on the fine china of the romantic comedy, that most reassuring of mainstream entertainments.

Mild-mannered, charming and honey-coated though it is, Late Bloomers takes some fairly insurrectionist positions. It champions the idea of gay marriage, which has replaced gay promiscuity as the outrage du jour of cultural traditionalists. Even more radically, the film suggests that labels such as "straight" and "lesbian" are often meaningless when applied to the complex course of an individual's lifetime. The women who fall in love no more think of themselves as "lesbians" than your average heterosexual high school employee. Yet their passion for each other overwhelms definitions of normalcy and renders radical politics irrelevant.

You wouldn't think a movie as gentle as Late Bloomers could offend anyone but the usual homophobic suspects, yet the Dyers have encountered resistance from every conceivable force in America's culture wars -- straights and gays, New York-L.A. sophisticates and inexperienced Southwestern investors, so-called "indie" film companies and the marketers who peddle their wares to art-house audiences.

For a supposedly non-political film, Late Bloomers has challenged a myriad of social and commercial taboos. And the Dyers are delighted, determined and exhausted from the fallout.

To settle the question that arises in many people's minds when they hear that two women filmmakers have made a lesbian love story, I ask Julia and Gretchen if they're -- you know -- that way. Their answers are as simple and complex as the uncertain sexual terrain traversed by their film's heroines.

"I consider myself bisexual," Gretchen says. "So people are surprised when I tell them I'm getting married in November -- to a man."

"Honestly, I hate that question," says Julia, "because it just allows people to peg you as a filmmaker, and explain your movie away. Let's just say I've known what it's like to fall in love with a woman."

The Dyers say that the idea for Late Bloomers came about not from their own love lives, but through their experience with a broader social phenomenon -- the public ritual known as a wedding.

"We had what we called our 'year of weddings,' where one friend after another was getting hitched," Gretchen recalls. "First we attended this legal, socially sanctioned ceremony for a man and a woman. It was this huge, lavishly catered $100,000 affair. Three months later, the couple had split and filed for divorce.

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