All Over Me (1997) is one of those films that is so realistic, it’s difficult to watch.
Written by Sylvia Sichel and directed by her sister Alex, the film is set in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City and tells the story of two fifteen-year-old girls, Claude (played by Alison Folland, who went on to roles in Good Will Hunting and Boys Don’t Cry) and Ellen (played by Tara Subkoff) — best friends who over the course of a few days in the summer, discover they don’t have as much in common as they thought they did when a tragedy occurs and they end up on opposite sides of the truth.
Claude is a solid, socially-awkward girl who is into punk music and Ellen; Ellen is a self-absorbed, volatile anorexic just waiting for some guy to come along and treat her like shit — which is exactly what happens. Ellen meets homophobic neighborhood thug Mark (Cole Hauser), who immediately recognizes Claude for the threat she is and begins pulling Ellen into his life of violence and drugs.
Claude, meanwhile, begins to make other friends as well, including a gay teenager (played by My So-Called Life‘s Wilson Cruz) with whom she works at the pizza place, and her new gay upstairs neighbor.
And then she meets Lucy (played by Leisha Hailey, who will play a bisexual woman in the upcoming tv series The L Word ), a pink-haired rocker grrl who plays the guitar and is much more open about her sexuality — and her attraction to Claude.
But before Claude can explore that relationship, she has to figure out where she stands with Ellen.
At its heart, the movie is a meditation on adolescent friendship and the ways in which conflicting desires and changing priorities can pull friends apart. It’s also a love story — about how Claude finally begins to love herself.
The film is particularly good at portraying the downward spiral experienced by many girls in their mid-teens, without resorting to preachy, heavy-handed dialogue.
The characters are well-developed in an understated way, and eerily identifiable — whether you grew up in the inner-city, the suburbs, or the countryside, you are likely to recognize yourself or friends you grew up with in Claude or Ellen. And this is what gives All Over Me its universal appeal — the trials of adolescent girls, and the ways in which their friendships are strained as they grow into who they will become, are similar the world over.
The acting in the film is excellent all around, as is the dialogue and the directing. The production quality is definitely on the gritty rather than polished side, but for the most part, this works for the film by reinforcing its realistic feel. The film does feel a little slow in places, although the intense character study ultimately pays off in allowing the viewer to more fully absorb the characters’ world.
The lesbian aspect of the film is treated in an understated way — there are no conversations between any of the characters around being gay, or coming out, despite the fact that the film includes several gay characters; Claude’s awareness of her feelings for Ellen and then Lucy just unfold and progress naturally as she interacts with the other characters.
This is refreshing in the context of so many other lesbian-themed movies today, which can err on the side of talking the subject to death.
In this and a few other ways, All Over Me is similar to Show Me Love, which explores teen friendship and lesbian relationships in suburban Sweden. While on the surface they tell very different stories, both movies movingly and realistically portray the weight of loyalty, peer pressure, and cruelty among teenage girls.
Despite being a film about excessive behavior and its consequences, All Over Me is fairly balanced in tone — while it’s not a happy, upbeat film, its not exactly depressing, either. It is ultimately an optimistic story, but in an “rising from the ashes” sort of way — which, unfortunately, is just the way things so frequently seem to happen in real life.