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.
In middle school, my mother enrolled me in cotillion classes, because she had enrolled my brother in cotillion classes when he was in middle school and because all of her friends enrolled all of their kids in cotillion classes. It wasn’t even a question. Once a month, we shuttled downtown to learn how to ballroom dance and how to court members of the opposite sex. It was, on most accounts, a deeply uncomfortable experience—from the feeling of a tulle-lined dress and too-tight kitten heels to the fact that I was one of very few brown kids in the class to the thick heteronormativity that coated every aspect of the grand affair.
And still, there were parts that I loved. I loved wearing formal gloves. I loved the cavernous and exquisite ballroom, which always smelled like wood and bodies. I loved the too sweet lemonade we got to drink midway through class, even though it was preceded by the weird ceremony of the boys asking us young ladies if we’d care for a refreshing lemonade. I loved learning how to dance. I wanted to perfect the moves, especially the waltz. But I was too rigid. My lips mouthed the count. I could never be totally present. In my fantasies, I danced it perfectly. My shoulders stayed low and I didn’t look at my feet and I didn’t instinctively move my body away from the sweaty hands of the middle school boys I was paired off with. Because in my fantasies, of course, I twirled through the old ballroom with another girl.
There’s a reason Alice Wu’s directorial debut Saving Face clocks in at number two on Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian, Queer & Bisexual Movies Of All Time. There are several reasons, in fact. It’s one of the best and funniest rom-coms there is—full-stop. It operates as a love letter to many things: to queer flirting, to family, to New York—and Flushing in particular—and to the rom-com genre. Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a Chinese-American lesbian, falls for ballerina Vivian (Lyn Chen) and runs up against cultural pressures, especially from her mother (Joan Chen), who has an unexpected secret of her own.
When I think of this movie, I think of its many dances. There’s the weekly matchmaking dances that Wil attends at her mother’s behest. Vivian is a dancer herself, breaking away from ballet to pursue her passion for modern. There’s the dance between Wil and her mother, who both contend with assumptions and expectations foisted upon them. This movie is as much about mothers and daughters as it is about queer love. Saving Face’s choreography is exquisite. Wu weaves a multilingual, multicultural, multidimensional stunner of a love story.
The greatest dance of all is the romance between Wil and Vivian. We watch them flirt and fall for each other and realize new possibilities for themselves. The very first time they lay eyes on each other, Wil’s on the dance floor, her eyes wandering away from that heteronormative space to the edge of the floor, where Vivian stands. The rest of the sound muffles. It’s that classic West Side Story-esque moment of eyes locking and the rest of the world fading away. Wu proves you don’t need a big budget to make big romantic beats.
The moment is made even more intimate when Vivian reveals it isn’t actually the first time she and Wil have met. Wil doesn’t remember at first, but they met at the ages of 8 and 9. Wil beat up some boys who were making fun of Vivian for having divorced parents. Vivian remembers exactly what Wil was wearing: “a Kristy McNichol t-shirt, tan cords, and a pageboy.” I don’t know what’s gayer: the outfit itself or the fact that Vivian remembers it in such specific detail 19 years later.
Sometimes Wil and Vivian’s flirtations feel restrained, especially since Wil is less comfortable with being out in public than Vivian. Their hands touch through a playground’s fence. Alone, they touch with more intensity. Alone, they perfect the moves of their dance together. Wil battles internalized homophobia, but she’s far from repressed. Instead, Saving Face tells a more nuanced story—one that eschews tragic lesbian tropes and offers something a little more grounded and open-ended than a neatly tied rom-com ending.
Saving Face both leans into rom-com tropes and also plays on expectations. Vivian and Wil’s big rom-com kiss doesn’t come at the moment you first expect it to. Again, it takes the more grounded approach. But the ending still satisfies and leaves its characters whole and happy. The whole film allows room for both conflict and joy.
I still haven’t waltzed with a woman on a ballroom floor. But just a few weeks ago, I looped my arms around my girlfriend’s neck while she set her warm hands on the slopes of my lower back. I leaned in and followed her lead. We weren’t waltzing. In fact, we were slow-dancing to 90s alternative which is about as far from a waltz as you can get. But my shoulders stayed low. I didn’t look at my feet. We’ve danced like this a lot—at a wedding once, at a now-closed New Orleans dive bar another time, these days just alone in our apartment. I still have the metallic silver gloves I once wore to the annual Christmas ball in cotillion class, and we’ve found some creative uses for them. My ballroom fantasies have come true after all.
But before all that. Before I experienced anything remotely like that. There was Saving Face.
When the big rom-com kiss finally does come in Saving Face, it happens exactly where it should. On the dance floor. On the dance floor where Wil has no doubt fantasized about what it would look like, what it would feel like, to dance with another woman. When Wil moves toward Vivian, people part to make way for the magnetic pull between them. Again, it’s like everything and everyone else fades away. They dance at their own tempo, because this moment is just theirs, no one else’s. Who knows where Will and Vivian will go from here. But for now, they have this dance.
Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.