Yes, “Loving Annabelle” Is Problematic — But it Was a Vital Film in My Own Queer Journey

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.


When I desperately clamored to claim Loving Annabelle for our Lost Movie Reviews series, I fully expected to have to give you two reviews in one. And I sort of still will but it’s not quite how I thought it would go. I expected my two reviews to be a review as a teenager in 2006 who loved this movie and a review as a 30-something in 2020 who hated it. But instead I bring you a combination review from my 19-year-old closeted self — a college kid who was just starting to accept that maybe she was legitimately into girls and was consuming as much queer content as she could get her greedy hands on to “make sure” before doing anything so drastic as coming out — who loved this movie, and a review from an adult human lady who professionally reviews queer TV and movies and tries her best to be constantly learning about LGBTQ+ representation and who is vehemently against teacher/student relationships… but still loved this movie.

Because as much as I’d love to pretend I can write this movie off for the problematic aspects, the truth is this movie was vital to my queer evolution and rewatching now as an out and proud queer woman who has consumed thousands of hours of LGBTQ+ content since I first laid eyes on that stripey-haired teen and her shy teacher crush, I was transported to that feeling of excitement and, frankly, hope that this movie once provided me.

The bare bones description of this movie is that Annabelle, the rebellious daughter of a lady senator who seems uninterested in raising her own kid, falls in love with and pursues her soft-spoken poetry teacher at an all-girls Catholic boarding school.

Funnily enough, I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies in quarantine and this movie starts the same way so very many of them do: a long stretch of highway, an endless expanse of trees, someone looking wistfully out the window. And when I started this movie, still expecting to hate it on my first viewing in over a decade, I thought this would be appropriate. Instead I found myself making notes as if I was about to write a college essay analyzing it. “A row of black limos drives up to drop Annabelle off at her new boarding school, looking not unlike a funeral procession.”

It’s wild what an emotional attachment to a film will do to the way your brain processes it.

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While I can’t say I would have felt the same way if I watched it for the first time this year, at my age, at my stage of life, watching it now, the reasons I loved it over a decade ago all came back to me. Annabelle has mommy issues and is the edgy “I don’t give a fuck” kind of teenager I always wished I was, even though in reality I was the head-down, get-good-grades, stay-out-of-trouble type. Annabelle was also confident in a way I still can’t quite fathom, and out in a way my 19-year-old self had rarely seen in real life.

loving annabelle do i make you nervous

“Annabelle’s “Do I make you nervous?” walked so Nicole Haught’s “I scare you?” could run.

When Annabelle comes out to her roommates, they react better than any of my Catholic high school friends had reacted to the hypothetical concept of having a gay friend, and in fact overall better than most of my college friends had when I cautiously mentioned I might not be particularly straight. Annabelle was so out and fine with being gay, watching her felt like being in a desert and someone telling me there was a watering hole up ahead if I just keep going.

And while I saw who I wanted to be in Annabelle, I saw some of myself in Simone. Aware of my sexuality but afraid of it because of the religious environment I was immersed in, waiting for someone to open the closet door and pull me out. Someone a little bolder, a little braver. A little more like Annabelle. And even though now I know that Annabelle was a child and Simone, as a teacher, absolutely should not have done half the things she did in this movie, I was a freshman in college when I first saw this movie, only a year older than Annabelle, and considered myself quite grown, so I didn’t see how problematic that relationship was at that point. (I also knew nothing of the predatory lesbian trope or how the misconception that queer = pervert would be one of the reasons I didn’t end up pursuing the teaching degree I was still a few years away from receiving.)

As an adult, though I obviously find it wildly inappropriate and would never ever condone such activities in real life, in this fictional situation, I can understand the appeal. Annabelle represented the life Simone never had. She was this out and proud teenager while Simone was faking her way through a relationship with a man after being shoved back in the closet, forced to only eye queer couples across the bar longingly.

That scene was also a key factor in me relating to Simone, since the summer before college I went to a party at my friend’s house and there was a lesbian couple there, which I had never seen in real life with my eyes. I knew a few girls in high school who were bisexual but none of them had girlfriends while I knew them, so I had never seen two people my age just casually holding hands or canoodling or wrapping their arms around each other in the hot tub. So I stared, hoping they could sense my curiosity and mental support and didn’t think I was judging them.

Back to the movie, I do want to briefly address the Catherine situation. Annabelle’s classmate is immediately intrigued by Annabelle and her gayness, but Annabelle reproaches all of her attempts to connect about it, which I understand, because Cat had been a jerk up until that point. And when Cat swims up to her in the pool one night and kisses her, Annabelle pushes her away saying, “I’m not interested in being your science project.” Which is frustrating because… surely Annabelle had to have kissed someone for the first time before? The whole idea of being someone’s first “dip in the lady pond” as it were as a negative thing is problematic on its own, but especially from a teeanger? It’s not even like they’d known each other for years and Annabelle knew Cat to be super into boys and was afraid she wasn’t being sincere? It would have been plausible for Annabelle to be like “No thanks you’re a very mean girl.” But, again, this movie was made in 2006 when The L Word made the now-outdated term “gold star lesbian” popular and biphobia wasn’t something we talked about, as a community, nearly enough.

Throughout the rest of the movie I continued to relate to Simone; I too fantasized about girls in church, for example. And Annabelle continued to represent the kind of girl I fantasized about; the kind of girl who would make the first move, for example.

loving annabelle fantasy crush

I spent an awful lot of time thinking about kissing girls in church while trying to actively avoid thinking about kissing girls.

One thing I really liked about this movie was that Simone and Annabelle, ignoring the problematic power dynamic, really did get to know each other and bond before anything ever happened. It wasn’t blind lust or a rushed, drunk decision. They talked about poetry, they spent a week alone together over the spring break, having the whole school and then a beach house to themselves, and never even kissed.

simone and annabelle beach

Just gals being pals.

Also I had forgotten how Simone’s ex Amanda died until Annabelle found that letter; but I couldn’t help but find their hug after more poignant than my 19-year-old self gave it credit for; this was probably the first time since Amanda died that Simone was able to truly mourn her, not as a best friend like she had to tell the rest of the world, but as the woman she was in love with. Annabelle was the first person to truly see and understand what she lost.

(Also this is neither here nor there but I am pretty sure the photos of Amanda are writer/director of the movie Katherine Brooks, which I love.)

And I can HEAR myself! I know how this sounds! And I know I wouldn’t be saying these things if the teacher in this situation was a man! I know. This isn’t how I thought this was going to go either.

More things my 90s-raised, secretly gay teenage self appreciated about this movie: “Gravity” by Sara Barelles, secret pinky touching in the dark, chopsticks in Annabelle’s hair, the fashion in general. I didn’t realize how many times I must have watched this movie until the scene at the dance when Annabelle starts singing and the music rocketed me back in time.

loving annabelle kiss

I hate how much I love this scene.

The thing that makes my lizard brain want to justify this relationship is that it was always Annabelle who made the first move, but she always stopped when Simone drew the line. And while in the end it was Annabelle who pulled Simone in, she waited for Simone to kiss her first. Consider also the actual sex scene; the push up against the wall, the gentleness of it, the fact that it was very clear what they were doing, sexually, something my 19-year-old self who had only ever drunkenly made out with girls appreciated. It was still Annabelle leading it, the power dynamic shifted. And if this was any other situation but a teacher/student, it would have been absolutely perfect. Because the truth is, even though it’s not as manipulative or toxic as, say, Ezra and Aria from Pretty Little Liars, it is still inappropriate. You can blame my own mommy issues for this review.

I guess the whole time I was watching this I was just like Colins, nervously holding my head up like, “I don’t care if they’re together, I like them both.”

There’s a reason forbidden romances like this spoke to me as a closeted person, and there was something refreshing about the “forbidden” part of this relationship, at the end of the day, having less to do with the fact that they were both women and more to do with the inappropriate teacher/student dynamic. Of course, being set in a Catholic school, there was an undertone of that, but it’s not what it was about.

And the move WAS self-aware. The inappropriateness of the relationship wasn’t TOTALLY swept under the rug. In fact, the movie ends with Simone being hauled away by the police. Of course, there’s an alternate ending where we see Annabelle return to Simone’s beach house, presumably post-graduation and post-turning 18, after reading a headline about how Simone wasn’t charged with anything, probably thanks in part to Annabelle’s mother not wanting this particular scandal on the record. And I wish I could explain to you how it sounds in my head with both sides of my brain (the rational adult side and the angsty teen side) screaming at each other about which ending is better.

I understand why it’s not everyone’s jam, and even why it is sometimes labeled problematic, and if this was a mainstream movie coming out in 2020 I would have a different opinion about it. But the truth is, it was lesbian writer/director Katherine Brooks’ passion project in 2006, made with not a lot of money and even less time, and you can tell it was made by queer people for queer people. It wasn’t made by a straight white cis man to tantalize and scandalize the masses. It was a story for us, and about us. The whole point of the movie was two women in love, for better or worse (okay mostly worse), and even now, 14 years later, we still don’t get that all too often.

So while this may not be the most popular opinion, I cannot deny this movie’s importance in my life specifically, and while I wouldn’t recommend it to someone trying to learn about queer culture, I would recommend it to those of us who are fully entrenched in our queerness and just want to have an angsty good time.


You can watch Loving Annabelle for free on Amazon Prime

Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 253 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. It is so hard to classify media into all bad, or all good categories. I love how you explain what you liked about it, but also explain how it is problematic. I saw it last year, as a baby gay and recognized that is problematic, and loved it any way!

  2. I feel the same way about this movie. It is hard not to find myself as a teen under the covers of my bed in the middle of the night, watching it in a language that I still did not fully understand, watching things I did not fully understand, but feeling something never felt before. This feeling will never go away..

  3. Hi Valerie Anne! This movie affected me a lot, so I have some thoughts about my experience with it, although I know your experience with it was really different!

    Like: I’m glad we’re talking about this movie, as it was a substantial part of the lesbian canon at that time…

    That, tho, is kind of the problem.

    Growing up in the nineties, so many narratives around queerness were inextricably tied up with shame. Movies like Loving Annabelle, which I saw less as a story about two women in love and more about an adult abusing a child, conflates the shame of committing that crime with the shame of being gay. When I watched the movie as a closeted young person, those two shames (one valid, one not) were inextricably linked for me in a way that I wasn’t fully able to articulate, but definitely gave me a stomachache. That conflation was a harmful and very effective tool that kept people like me in the closet for far too long.

    I can certainly assume the best intentions from the director. The color palette of the film is washed out, and I remember the movie as being largely joyless — the institutions that the teacher has bought into have long perverted the idea of queer love, and that helps to lead her towards the abuse of power that she commits. When they get together, it cannot be fully joyful (and I think the actor who plays the teacher does a good job with this) — because she is committing harm. I think she knows that, and also thinks that it is all she is capable of/all she deserves, because she is queer, which in her world is also, somehow intrinsically bad. If that’s what the director intended to convey, that the ways that institutions like the Catholic church have perverted the joy of queer love lead to further harm, I think that she succeeded.

    But: what of queer joy?

    There was a point in my life — and it took me YEARS, and so much therapy — where I was able to separate shame and queerness enough to start to come out and date women. It was like slowly dismantling a wall of shame. And when I kissed a woman for the first time, at age 30, the wall, which I had been painstakingly taking apart, brick by brick, just absolutely toppled the rest of the way down. Because! The joy! My god, that joy. I knew, wholly and completely and for the first time, that being queer was a pure and joyful thing.

    That joy is what I’m unable to find in Loving Annabelle, and it’s why movies like that one, where love and abuse are conflated, will always miss the mark for me, even if they are important cultural artifacts as we move toward a healthier and more joyful future for the queers we see on screen.

  4. watched the movie as an adult and this gets really close to how i felt at the time: “… constantly learning about LGBTQ+ representation and … vehemently against teacher/student relationships… but still loved this movie.”

    i didn’t love the movie, but i loved a few things about it. that left me conflicted. had pretty much the same feeling about the relationship between Brian/Justin in the american version of Queer as Folk. the character studies of the people in the relationships were engaging, but that required distancing yourself from their age dynamics. those bits of media are contemporary, and representation in the mid-aughts was as paltry as it was sketchy, so i think we overlooked a lot. from the vantage point of today’s media and sensibilities, there’s no valid argument to support overlooking that kind of imbalance, even if there’s a sympathetic premise and the younger person is the aggressor. now i’d like think i would skip them if i knew about those themes.

    i remember finding the teacher in LA sympathetic and liking her, and then really judging her for giving in to Annabelle’s advances. by the time she was arrested, it didn’t feel fair, but it didn’t feel wrong. if i remember correctly, it was implied the old nun was closeted/self-denying, and acted out of jealousy; she really felt like a villain. i remember an interview with the writer/director saying she wanted for there to ‘finally be a really great sex scene’ (paraphrase), which felt really, really wrong in this context. i think i wondered why someone would want to abuse their audience by giving them physical representation they seldom get inside of a gross relationship.

    it’s been really interesting to read what people who were closer in age to the young lead thought about the film.

    thanks autostraddle (generally) & Valerie Anne (specifically): at the time i saw this i was in a new city and out of touch with queer friends, but had no inclination to talk about it with the straight ppl around me. so i have apparently been waiting over a decade to talk about this film.

  5. Thank you for revisiting the past with us, Valerie Anne! Loving Annabelle didn’t have the same impact as, let’s say, Fucking Amal for me but, still, I liked it. What I remember is that I couldn’t believe the ages Annabelle and Simone were supposed to be, Wikipedia says 17 and 32. Erin Kelly was in her 20s (like me) and Diane Gaidry in her early 40s (my age now). That’s how I perceived them and what made the mutual attraction somehow believable to me. Otherwise I think that even back then I wouldn’t have found the movie appealing. Not because I was very aware of the inappropriateness (I was not) but because I wouldn’t have understood Simone, at all.

  6. Thank you for this review. I think you struck a fine balance between your personal impressions, whether before or now and the general social implications and how this movie sits in the world today.

    I was also a teenager when I first saw this movie. At the time, it was less about loving or not loving it and more about discovering content where women love each other romantically. I did love it, though. And it remains in my film collection up to this day.

    I don’t have a problem with it or its content. If I ask myself why not…

    This movie put a lot of effort into highlighting that Simone, the older woman, is Apprehensive and Cautious, while Annabelle, the underage girl, whether out of a lack of awareness for how severe the consequences of pursuing this would be or something else, is Insistent, Motivated and initiated most of the actual events that led them into a sexual encounter.

    Does that change the reality of Simone having more power socially and experientially? No. Does it ignore that Annabelle simply isn’t old enough to make as informed of a decision as Simone? It does not. The movie further drives the point home by not skipping over the consequences – both are emotionally punished for acting on their mutual sexual attraction and Simone is additionally legally, socially and likely professionally punished.

    But what the creative decisions made in this movie do is create complexity. On one side you have the law, which is meant to be unambiguous, universally beneficial and enforceable. On the other side you have the reasons why and how this particular law was broken, which the law itself doesn’t care about and doesn’t take into account. It doesn’t care about the personalities and feelings of these two people, or the circumstances which led to it.

    But if you want to give an absolute, universal, truthful verdict on the situation (if you ever can) you have to look at the situation as a whole, without discounting the things which the law doesn’t look at.

    Annabelle’s personality is more resilient. She does not lose herself or her place in the world when she engages with Simone (her independence, her wants and everything that differentiates her from the other students). She does not falter when breaking rules that do not suit her at that moment (smoking, carrying on her items deemed inappropriate by the Catholic school, going off campus with Simone). When she doesn’t want something, she says so, sets a boundary and walks away (when Catherine wanted to make out with her in the pool). She is a person that displays the capacity to take care of herself and her needs. She is underage, but even underage people have a certain amount of agency.

    Simone, on the other hand, has been lost in that school for years, coming back to it after college because that’s where she ends up when she applies minimal agency in her own life. She struggles with setting boundaries (Mother Immaculata coming on to her; sex with Michael, discussing living arrangements with him, breaking up with him; and even Annabelle who reaches deep, intimate levels with Simone despite Simone trying to keep her away but ultimately failing to maintain that boundary). She is unsure about what is the right course of action and is in a constant state of uncertainty (voiced when she spoke to the priest). She is arguably in a position where she should have more things figured out than a 17-year-old – an established career, wants, personal relationships… But she doesn’t. And she is the one who will suffer the legal punishment for her and Annabelle having sex, because technically she’s the one that has to.

    The law against sex with minors is there for a good reason – to protect minors and discourage adults. But at the same time, each individual case has its particularities and the particularities of this movie’s case make the whole thing bittersweet, because you could argue Annabelle didn’t need protection from Simone. But you could likewise argue Simone needed to be punished solely on the fact of having sex with a minor, regardless of whether it hurt the minor or not.

    I love this film for very personal reasons and I am able to love it without reservations because I trust the two characters with each other. I trust Simone to give Annabelle room to be herself, to be young, to make mistakes, to have needs that Simone might not agree with or understand, for Annabelle to be in a different point in life than Simone. I trust Annabelle with Simone, despite her initial insistent pushing, to have agency in the relationship, to lead by example on how to be true to yourself and to love Simone, or leave if it stops working out. I trust them because the movie showed me their capacity to do just that. Comparatively, Bloomington showed me none of that and I really dislike that movie even though the situation in it was less controversial, because the younger person was older than 18.

    This turned out much longer than I anticipated, but I want to share one final thought without a definitive conclusion: Yes. If Simone were a man, it would be different. But that’s logical. Men inhabit the world differently, their sexual behavior is socially treated differently and the history of men generally and how their sexuality relates to people younger and underage than them is different than that of women. It doesn’t apply to each individual case and person, obviously, but it’s that which motivates me not to look at older man–underage girl and older woman–underage girl as equivalent situations.

  7. I’m not going to lie, in an age where I consumed nearly ever queer thing I could, the age difference (visually) really just didn’t make this my thing and also gave me a long running complex on being “predatory” seeming. I’d be fine with this film fading from history

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