Review of “Butch Jamie”

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Butch Jamie is a rare lesbian

romantic comedy that entertains thoroughly without ever showing a pretentious

side or lingering over melodramatic elements. A perfect showcase for the

talents of writer/producer/director/star Michelle Ehlen, the film is a familiar

and enormously funny sendup of a mainstream rom-com, with plenty of

laugh-out-loud moments and lesbian in-jokes.

The film begins as Jamie (Michelle Ehlen), a perpetually out-of-work

actress, “femmes herself up” unsuccessfully for an audition. She comes home to

her roommate Lola (Olivia Nix) and Lola’s “cat actor” Howard, who’s been

starring in cat food commercials and local films.

Eager to match Howard’s success, Jamie takes the advice of her best friend,

David (David Au), and goes to auditions as herself — a butch lesbian. She gets

cast in a male part, and in a perfect reverse of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, finds herself in the

gender-bending role with a few romantic entanglements that keep everything

interesting.

On set, Jamie (or “male Jamie” as she refers to herself) attracts the

attention of Jill (Tiffany Anne Carrin), a sexy costume designer. They begin to

date, though Jill is under the impression that Jamie is all man. Meanwhile, an

attraction develops between Lola and Jamie, despite Lola’s intense German

girlfriend (Andrea Andrei). It’s all rooted in the usual romantic comedy

tropes, but the script is breezy and self-referential, adding a layer of snark

to the proceedings.

Thrown into the mix is a great deal of discussion about gender roles and

gender fluidity, bisexuality (Lola is bisexual), and male versus female

behavior in general. Jamie spends a few very funny scenes attempting to

“research” her role as a man: checking out male bathroom etiquette, asking Lola

about straight versus gay relationships, pestering David about “packing” and so

on.

Many familiar topics come up, including a few tried-and-true bisexual jokes,

but the tone is conversational and nonconfrontational at all times.

The overall take-away isn’t

particularly deep (really, it’s just “be yourself”), but it works for the film.

The script is smart to acknowledge its roots in Dustin Hoffman’s comic

masterpiece. It was also a wise decision to change everything according to

scale — as Butch Jamie is a small,

independent film, the production Jamie finds herself working on (the film

within the film) is a tiny, micro-budget video, as opposed to Tootsie’s big-budget TV show setting.

It’s a very funny and knowing nod to the film’s relationship with the earlier

flick.

A lesser cast would likely mangle the delicate balance between “cute and

smart” and “completely clichéd,” but the talented performers do wonders.

David Au and Olivia Nix are natural in their parts, but the movie absolutely

belongs to Ehlen, who brings an infectious blend of slacker sensibilities and

earnestness to the character of Jamie. She’s also uproariously funny. Ehlen

elevates this film from a perfectly respectable little lesbian flick to a

definite must-watch through her perfect comic timing and a physical brand of

humor that translates beautifully to the screen.

In fact, some of the funniest scenes in the film involve only Jamie. At one

point, she has a hilarious “conversation” with Howard about their respective

careers, as the cat nonchalantly chomps away at some plastic flowers. "I

can slobber on flowers too,” she mutters into her beer, staring miserably into

the distance.

Later, a dramatic scene is broken up by an obscenely awkward moment

punctuated by perfect timing. It’s in these moments that Ehlen proves why she

was awarded “Outstanding Actress” at Outfest 2007 in L.A.

Michelle Ehlen

Howard the cat deserves special mention as well — instead of using the

animal as a gimmick, he’s smartly integrated into the characters’ lives and

conflicts. He also steals a few scenes, and Lola’s obsession over him is quite

funny to boot (and works as a little in-joke about the “lesbians love cats”

stereotype). He’s obviously a normal (though cute and well-behaved) feline, but

Lola treats him like a star and makes sure to show his ridiculous "demo reel" to

everyone who happens upon their apartment. It’s all part of the funny “slice of

life” atmosphere.

As a small film, the production values are somewhat pedestrian. It’s

creatively shot and competently edited, but there’s definitely an amateur sheen

to the film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it certainly adds to the

scrappy, do-it-yourself energy that the movie rides along on.

It’s a perfect example of what can be done with a solid script and talented

performers, minus a big budget.

In fact, the only element that’s truly lacking is the soundtrack. Like an

episode of The L Word, where that

awful theme song jars viewers away from all the glossy fun, Butch Jamie’s songs mix indie-sounding

punk and acoustic rock in a way that reeks of lesbian film cliché.

It’s not awful, and certainly not a deal-breaker, but it may induce a few

eye rolls. To borrow a phrase from The

Big Gay Sketch Show
, it’s very "wrist-cuffy."

It’s no surprise that the film did quite well on the queer film festival

circuit, despite its initial low visibility.  Michelle

Ehlen is absolutely one to watch — and so is this debut feature film. If you’re

at all a fan of comedy, Butch Jamie

deserves a place on your next movie-night playlist.

Butch Jamie will be released on DVD on November 18, 2008

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