Queer rom-com Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls

This Toronto director is ushering in the new age of queer rom-coms

Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls is a fun and joyous queer coming-of-age story

Filmed in Toronto and written and directed by Toronto filmmaker Julianna Notten, Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls hits all the classic romantic comedy favourites. The love interest gets a slow-zoom, wind through her hair moment set to dreamy music. There’s a grand gesture roughly three quarters through the movie. There’s a school dance finale featuring a romantic slow dance. But it’s not your average rom-com. The film, a queer coming-of-age story of a middle school girl in Toronto, shows us what the new age of this genre could be.

The rom-com genre has served as the blueprint for heterosexual love for decades. Romantic comedies have been around since as early as Shakespeare, and in the heyday of the genre, with Nora Ephron classics such as Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, these movies grossed over $100 million in theatres.

And yet, with the abundance of films in the genre and the high demand for them, there hasn’t historically been much of a place for queer stories. According to GLAAD’s 2022 Studio Responsibility Index, only 20.8 per cent of the 77 films released by the seven major studios in 2021 contained LGBTQ characters (a total of 28 characters). Out of those characters, only seven clocked over 10 minutes of screen time. And the types of narratives these characters play a part in are limiting.

“A lot of queer coming-of-age films are about coming out or are rooted in tragedy, which are still really important stories to tell, but it can begin to feel like it’s the only one,” Notten says. “I wanted to tell a story where the main problems that the main character faces doesn’t begin and end with her sexuality.”

In Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls, Erin (Elliot Stocking) is out to her whole Grade 8 class and best friends with Liz (Jesyca Gu), fellow comic lover and a track star. Her problem? She’s grappling with Liz’s acceptance into a private school and also trying to figure out how to get the cool new girl, Sydni (Rosali Annikie), to go to the school’s upcoming dance with her.

“I wanted to focus on friendship as the main relationship in terms of that push and pull you feel when you’re 13,” Notten says. “It’s the feeling of having to grow up quickly, and maybe one friend not being ready for that change, and worrying about getting left behind. But I also wanted to tell it through a queer lens, because I never got that chance when I was that age to experience that because I didn’t know it was an option for myself as someone who was fairly repressed in Catholic school.”

Notten says they were inspired to create this film because of the lack of positive queer coming-of-age stories out there, especially for this age group. “These kids are ‘chronically online,’ they’re able to identify things about gender and sexuality that I never could at that age. And they’re looking to see themselves positively represented in the media,” they say. “I want us to tell stories that can be fun.”

Notten suspects the industry’s focus on tragedies used to be an effort to normalize queer people. “It was about trying to make people see, yes, we’re human too, we undergo these tragedies and it’s not easy,” she says.

“But I think at this point, we need to make stories for ourselves, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to have Erin live her life, and I’d love to see other queer stories about other people just living their lives.”

Andrea Houston, queer media professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, believes that the focus of queer stories in film on tragedies or coming out speaks to who the movie is actually being marketed to. “For North America, most movie companies . . . are also marketing movies to different markets around the world, and different parts have different view on homosexuality.”

Houston says that with all those different interests movie companies have to balance, they’ll focus on what makes more money. “So getting those large fringe-type stories is far more difficult than the sort of heteronormative take on a queer relationship.”

At Mongrel Media, a Toronto-based independent film distribution company, they instead seek out films they can target to niche audiences — and count the LGBTQ community as one of those groups.

Tom Alexander, Mongrel’s director of theatrical releasing, says with queer movies, “The idea is just finding the ways to get that segment of the audience interested in the film so that they go out and see it in theatres.”

Take Bros, marketed as the first gay rom-com from a major studio in 2022. The movie brought in just $4.8 million in the film’s opening weekend, and star and writer Billy Eichner blamed the movie’s lack of success on straight people and homophobes who didn’t watch the movie in a now-deleted tweet.

His comments are a reminder of the pressure queer filmmakers are under, often having to choose between true and honest representations of the queer experience that may cut their movie off from certain audiences, or sanitizing the film and making it more palatable to straight viewers.

Ewan Kirkland, a media professor at the University of Brighton, says more successful queer rom-coms, from The Kids Are All Right to Call Me By Your Name, often have to adhere to the genre’s largely heteronormative parameters to make it to the big screen.

“Certain kinds of normativities, straight normativities, are imposed upon queer characters within mainstream cinema. Arguably, this might be something where you make representation more palatable for non-queer audiences,” he says.

Kirkland, who studied around 25 different romantic comedies in his 2007 paper, “Romantic comedy and the construction of heterosexuality,” says, “One of the key themes that emerged from this was the way . . . heterosexuality is depicted as the right, proper, privileged form of sexuality.”

He cites tropes such as “opposites attract,” monogamy and the notion of there being “The One” out there for each person who is inevitably someone of the opposite gender.

In Erin’s Guide, Notten subverts a few of these tropes, and opts for queer-centric story lines instead. Erin doesn’t end up with her “opposite,” or with the person she spends most of the movie pursuing. She realizes she has feelings for her best friend instead — a trope that would surely resonate with many queer viewers. The movie is also filled with in-jokes, such as a moment when Liz asks how Erin knows Sydni is gay, and the camera zooms in on a few telltale signs: Doc Martens, a gemstone necklace and the Virginia Woolf book in her hands. Most of all, it’s a joyous celebration of queerness, one that queer audiences young and old are connecting with.

“It’s so rewarding to hear people my age or older who are seeing the film feel this sort of catharsis watching it,” Notten says. “They tell me, ‘Oh, it’s so nice that this exists. I’m so glad that kids today get to get to experience a movie like this.'”

Notten says they think they see a shift happening when it comes to queer representation since they started writing Erin’s Guide over five years ago, pointing to British Netflix series Heartstopper as an example of a positive queer coming-of-age story. “But I personally don’t know a lot with female characters, specifically in this age group. It’s a thing that a lot of the big networks don’t want to touch, because it doesn’t feel like there’s an audience for it.”

She says the film was funded almost exclusively through grant money, including Telefilm Canada and the Shaw Rocket Fund for youth media. “I was really nervous applying for this funding because I felt like it didn’t match the vibe of Canadian cinema that I’d seen,” she says. “But that’s maybe why it got chosen, because it’s something different.”

Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls will be playing at Carlton Cinema in Toronto starting Feb. 3, and will also be available on demand.

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