On “High Art” and Being Young and Gay

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.


I’ve spent my whole life thinking I was older than my age. Having older crushes, older friends. Latching onto mentors with a frantic desperation. An arrogance or a loneliness telling me I’m better than others at my stage in life. That I should skip a grade, skip an age, be today where I could be tomorrow.

When I moved to Los Angeles two years ago, I was 25. Objectively an adult. When my parents were 25 they were married. Every time I checked Facebook I saw peers doing the same. Some had children. We were adults. I was an adult.

Before I moved to LA, I lived in a one bedroom apartment with my girlfriend who was four years older than me. We were artists in New York with no plans to have kids, but we shared a domesticity all the same. I’d started putting money aside each month to buy a dog. Adulthood.

But when I moved to LA, I’d only been out of the closet for two years. When I broke up with my girlfriend, I had never dated as a woman or a queer person. And yet as I began to seek community, to pursue my career with a fervor I’d kept silent, I reminded myself that I’d already been an adult. I was hardly young. I wasn’t that new. And if I was I sure as fuck wasn’t going to let anyone, especially myself, know. Because what I knew more than anything was that I was gay. I was finally gay. And not just in the sense that I was a woman fucking women. I was gay like I’d longed to be gay all my life. Being gay, being an artist, being around certain types of people, certain energies, certain pleasures, certain horrors, certain adults. It’s all I had ever wanted. How could I be unprepared for something I’d always wanted?

Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 debut High Art is about an adult named Syd. Syd lives with her boyfriend and was just promoted to assistant editor at a photography magazine called Frame. The secretary asks how she got the promotion and her response is incredulous. She was always going to be promoted. This was always going to be her next step. Even if her bosses still treat her like an intern.

The next phase of Syd’s life drips down from a crack in her ceiling. Her upstairs neighbor, Lucy Berliner, is a Nan-Goldin-esque photographer who a decade earlier left the art world to focus on doing heroin with her chaotic German girlfriend Greta. Lucy wants to call a plumber, but Syd insists she can fix the leak herself. She wants to prove that she doesn’t need anyone. Lucy is charmed by her tenacity, her youth.

Syd’s trips to fix the leak evolve into a new social circle and a new identity. Lucy and her friends are so cool, so experienced. Lucy is a genius who doesn’t seem to care about her genius. Syd wants to inhale their queer way of life like a line of heroin. And she does. It burns.

Syd brings Lucy’s work to her bosses. Their initial dismissal quickly turns into a desire to feature the comeback of a former enfant terrible. But Lucy has one condition: Syd has to be her editor. Through work, through drugs, through sex, Lucy and Syd become more and more intertwined. In a sense, they fall in love.

When Syd goes into work with her glasses and business attire, she looks less like a professional and more like an eager teen prepping for debate club. Her bosses treat her accordingly, condescending her every word. Syd’s boyfriend complains about her treatment with his own condescension. “I’m sticking up for you,” he insists. But to Syd he’s simply doing more of the same.

Only Lucy talks to Syd like she’s an equal. Only Lucy invites her to hang out with her friends and trusts her to do drugs. Syd’s boyfriend fucks her, but only Lucy calls her sexy. Syd feels seen by Lucy. Syd is seen by Lucy. It’s powerful to be seen.

But, of course, Lucy and Syd are not equals. They lie in bed together and Lucy’s hand hovers over Syd’s collar bone with reverence. “That’s the wonderful thing about you,” Lucy says. “Your ambition, your focus, your drive. I really love having that around me again. I didn’t know how much I missed it.”

If Lucy is bringing Syd to adulthood, Syd is bringing Lucy back to her youth. Syd is our protagonist, but the film is not in her point of view. We often see Lucy separate from her — with Greta, with her judgmental Jewish mother. We see what adulthood has become for Lucy. The drugs are a pitiful escape from the monotony. Syd is a jolt of energy — a reminder who Lucy once was, who Lucy once could be.

Ally Sheedy plays Lucy with a sexy grime. She’s alluring and intimidating and, most of all, sad. In contrast with Syd, she’s confident and aloof. But with anyone else her desperation bleeds. Sheedy’s performance of Lucy’s performance works so well, because Syd is giving a performance of her own. Radha Mitchell captures Syd’s youthful arrogance, the specific type of vulnerability that’s present in a person determined not to appear vulnerable. They circle around each other, a symbiotic relationship between parasites.

Following its Price of Salt lineage, Lucy and Syd’s relationship culminates in a road trip. For the first time, both women approach something real. Syd asks Lucy not to do drugs. Lucy snaps and says the cruelest thing she can imagine: “Just be an adult.” But after this conversation, a line has been crossed. Syd has expressed a desire. Lucy has expressed an emotion. “This is intense… I’m not usually like this,” Syd admits in bed. She gets on top still trying to feign a knowing before allowing Lucy to flip her over into their natural roles.

The next morning, Syd lies in bed, her hand to her mouth like she’s sucking her thumb. Lucy gets on top of her and takes the picture that will be the future cover of Frame — Lucy trying to consume Syd, Syd staring into the camera with her last innocent gaze.

Syd cannot save Lucy. Not her love, not her youth. Lucy ODs. Syd goes into work, glasses off, messy strands of hair falling into her face. She looks five years older. The magazine cover with her naked body has gone to print. “Great work, Syd,” her one boss says. “Great work, Syd. It looks wonderful,” her other boss repeats. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what it takes to have the things you want. This is the sacrifice.” Syd locks eyes with the receptionist who did not make these choices.

The only people who express concern about Syd and Lucy’s relationship are Greta and Syd’s boyfriend. Greta calls Syd “the teenager” with a dismissive eye roll. Syd’s boyfriend is even more judgmental. “You’re really at the center of it all now,” he spits. “You’ve got the power job, you’ve got the hipster friends, and all that access. It’s the real shit. I mean, this is just what you wanted.”

He’s not wrong. This is what Syd wanted. And there’s nothing wrong with her want. There’s nothing wrong with her desire for success. There’s nothing wrong with her wanting to fuck someone twice her age. There’s nothing wrong with her wanting to fuck the photographer she’s working with. To call these things wrong is to deny Syd the support she needs. She doesn’t need to be told she’s wrong. She needs to be told to be careful.

Whether or not certain corners of the queer internet want to believe it, age gap relationships have always been and will likely always be a part of queer culture. We are often denied the family structures of our cishet counterparts and we go looking for that support elsewhere. And, yes, sometimes sex gets involved. And it’s not always age. It’s experience too. A seasoned gay and a baby gay can be the same age and still have a gulf of experience between them. These relationships aren’t just “okay” — they can be life-changing.

The fact is Syd is an adult. When I moved to LA, I was an adult too. There’s a difference between treating adults like children and acknowledging the reality of power differentiations. There’s a whole world of experiences between not okay and not a big deal. Losing your gay innocence is a big deal. It’s exciting and lonely and terrifying. But it’s better than okay. For a lot of us, it’s necessary.

Two years later I feel like a completely different person than when I moved to LA. My gay coming-of-age was a bit less dramatic than a tryst ending in death. But there’s still a heaviness when I think back to that version of me so distant and so near. I wish she’d had a bit more support through it all. Then again, people tried, and she just laughed. She was an adult, she insisted. She was fine.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 163 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Aw this was the first queer film I saw, bought it on DVD as a teen and obviously it was the best film I’d ever seen. Thanks for a lovely writeup Drew. Big age gaps in sexual contexts still creep me out but I’m here for support and lifting up the generation that comes after us ❤️

  2. Wow. This is incredibly written. I’m sitting here near-tears because this also perfectly expresses shades of my own age-gap and loss-of-gay-innocence experiences I’ve been trying to process lately. Thank you for these words!

  3. Oh, Drew. I loved this movie so much when I was 18 and this piece perfectly encompasses why.

    I also always gravitated towards older people. At first it was out of a desire to be “cool” and popular; in middle school I was decidedly not cool among my own classmates, but if I hung out with my older neighbors (with whom I’d been friends since we were little kids) I was a little bit cooler by association. As I got older, and especially after I came out to myself, it morphed into a desire for guidance. For someone to show me how to be a queer person who lived in this world. If I had been Syd, and met Lucy, I would’ve done exactly what Syd did – latch onto her, try to insert myself into her world. When I was 23 and first moved to NYC, I started dating a woman who was 10 years older than me. It was much less glamorous (and there were no drugs involved) but I stayed with her for a little over a year until I realized that her version of adulthood, which I was slowly being pulled into, was not what I wanted for myself. I haven’t seen High Art since I was probably 18, but I want to watch it again to see how I feel about it now. I’ll probably still love it, even though the ending is sad.

  4. Still have mixed feelings on age gaps. I think we as a community have a double standard and would condemn a heterosexual relationship for the same age difference we would excuse a lesbian one.

    Agreed some of those experiences can be beautiful, if not life changing.
    But in the same breath there is an inherent power difference, it should be acknowledged.

    Also, beautiful essay.

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