Alex Sichel makes a splashy directorial debut in “All Over Me,” a powerful exploration of the intimate friendship between two adolescent girls as they are about to experience the first taste of adulthood. Though main character is lesbian, this stirringly gritty drama is so rich in ideas that it goes beyond a coming-out or even a lesbian-themed story. Fine Line has a gem of a movie, one that’s much more accomplished — but also more difficult to market — than “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love,” the popular lesbian romance that Dolly Hall produced and Fine Line released in l995.
An instant classic, “All Over Me” achieves the almost impossible task of probing seriously — but not earnestly — the sexual awakenings of three teenagers, a lesbian, a homosexual and a straight girl, without resorting to any stereotypical cliches. In its thematic scope — and other respects — new film is far more interesting and complex than Larry Clark’s sensationalistic “Kids” and Maria Maggenti’s amateurish “Incredibly True Adventure.”
Set in New York’s multicultural Hell’s Kitchen, tale revolves around Claude (Alison Folland), a big, not particularly attractive girl, who spends all of her time with Ellen (Tara Subkoff), her sexy best friend. Inseparable, the two girls are so intimate with each other that when they lie in bed exchanging personal secrets, physical touch seems quite natural.
But Ellen is now dating Mark (Cole Hauser), an older, uncouth macho, who introduces her to a sleazy lifestyle of sex and drugs, inevitably resulting in drifting apart from Claude. Claude works part-time in a local pizzeria, where she befriends Jesse (Wilson Cruz), a black teenager who not only resembles Sal Mineo in “Rebel Without a Cause,” but also plays a similar role, except that Jesse’s homosexuality is in the open (unlike Mineo’s role in the 1955 film).
There’s no rapport between Claude and her mother (Ann Dowd), who seems more concerned with her looks and new beau than with her daughter, who’s about to graduate from school; the film is set on the last day of classes. Into the neighborhood moves Luke (Pat Briggs), a gay musician who reignites Claude’s ambition, or rather fantasy, to form a band with Ellen, though both girls suspect they might lack the necessary talent.
Fearful and still doubtful about her instincts, Claude is at first hesitant to frequent a lesbian bar. However, when she finally goes, the experience turns out to be most rewarding upon meeting Lucy (Leisha Hailey), a sensitive, more mature singer who introduces Claude to music and helps her embrace her emerging sexual identity.
A moral crisis that throws all the characters into turmoil occurs when Luke is stabbed to death and it’s clear who’s the homophobic culprit. But even here, though the movie uses a familiar plot element — Claude’s dilemma of whether or not to inform the police — the issue is handled discreetly, without the customary hysterics or melodramatics.
It’s rare for an American film to portray with such delicacy, subtlety and candor the complexities of coming of age — and coming out — but the Sichel sisters (Sylvia as writer, Alex as director) have accomplished that. The film’s style, particularly its elaborate mise en scene, is infused with a European sensibility: There are silent moments in which painful meanings are established through looks; moody tracking shots that follow the characters as they quietly move through empty streets; expressive close-ups that linger onscreen even after the conversation is over.
First-time helmer also shows great ease in handling her gifted cast. Folland, who projects the kind of awkward honesty that Sandrine Bonnaire showed in Maurice Pialat’s masterpiece “A Nos Amours,” dominates every frame of the picture. As she demonstrated in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” she is an instinctive actress with plenty of reserves to draw upon for her full-bodied portrait of a bright girl who suddenly realizes she must make fateful deci-sions that might estrange her from both family and friends. Folland is surrounded by a terrific ensemble, which doesn’t have a single weak performance.
Lenser Joe DeSalvo, whose precise, elegant camera contributed immeasurably to the impact of “What Happened Was,” here provides equally impressive visuals, aptly matching the subtle swings in the story.