“Sensitivity Training” is a quirky comedy featuring queer women scientists


Melissa Finell‘s feature film debut, Sensitivity Training, passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Blunt and seemingly unfeeling microbiologist Serena (Anna Lise Phillips) is serious, single and without a friend. Her co-workers are intimidated by her presence, and when she berates one of them the same day as she offs herself, Serena is forced into sensitivity training, delivered through her coach, Caroline (Jill E. Alexander). Caroline is Serena’s exact opposite–a bubbly, smiley, wife and mother. (Bonus: She’s married to a woman!) Needless to say, she’s a thorn in Serena’s side at first, but their conversations about their lives and things like feelings help to soften Serena’s demeanor as she eventually comes to question Caroline’s role in her life outside of work. Is it friendship, or something more?


Co-starring Girl Code‘s Quinn Marcus and with a brief appearance from Amy Madigan as Serena’s distant mother, Sensitivity Training is a largely female cast with queer themes intricately woven in and treated with effective normalcy. Serena’s questioning her relationship with Caroline doesn’t send her into a spiral of self-doubt or worry, but instead, a nervous energy around her friend and some fun Google searches about lesbian sex, including some toys she ponders adding to her toolbox.

One of the most interesting aspects of production is that it was partly funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which awards filmmakers looking “to tackle science and technology themes and characters, to increase visibility for feature films that depict this subject matter and to produce new films about science and technology and about scientists, engineers and mathematicians.” 

“I previously had the idea of this general film idea about this woman who has all these interpersonal conflicts at work and gets forced into sensitivity training with a very happy bubbly coach,” Melissa said. “I had the core concept about what I wanted to write. And then when I learned about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the grant, it sort of got me thinking, and I thought about my character and how it actually made sense for her to be a scientist; that she just has this very precise sort of anti-emotional kind of mind.”

After becoming a finalist, the foundation helped to pair Melissa with a scientist to do the research she needed for the film’s more science-themed scenes. She also took the cast to a lab at UCLA so they could get the feel for what it would be like to be spending large chunks of time in lab coats.

2016 Los Angeles Film Festival - "Sensitivity Training" Photo CallPhoto by David Livingston/Getty Images

“It’s definitely accurate in spirit,” Melissa said. “Aside from the actual science of the bacteria she discovers, I tried to be very accurate to even just the social politics of working at a university lab, like the hierarchy and all of that.”

More you may like