Put three multi-generational, multiracial, almost nude characters together and what do you get? The answer is Steam, an earnest, if uneven, “multiple storyline” tale of three women and their complicated love lives.
The central conceit — and the title of the film — comes from the meeting place of our three protagonists: the steam room at a local health club. Doris (Ruby Dee), an older African-American woman, walks in, greeting Elizabeth (Kate Siegel) a semi-closeted college student and Laurie (Ally Sheedy). Soon, we break into the women’s lives, which couldn’t possibly be more different, but for the broad strokes.
(left to right) Ally Sheedy, Ruby Dee, and Kate Siegel)
We begin with Doris. Her husband passed away not long ago, and she’s still in mourning, refusing to play the old piano she keeps hidden away in a locked room, despite her love of music. Adding to her misery, she’s hounded by a nosey preacher and his two cronies.
Soon, she meets a gentleman named August (Dick Anthony Williams), at the grocery store, who seems to love music and dancing as much as she does. It all begins with a very amusing fight in the produce aisle and soon evolves into dating and eventually a romance that is sweet and frankly, adorable. Unfortunately, it’s complicated by the fact that August’s son doesn’t accept what he sees to be his late mother’s “replacement.”
Next, we move on to Laurie, a divorced, overworked single mom trying to make ends meet for her son TJ. She faces off against her insensitive ex-husband, who threatens her with legal papers and snide comments at every turn and generally does anything he can to make her life miserable.
She begins to date TJ’s hunky young football coach at the advice of her horny friend Jacky (the hilarious Chelsea Handler, doing her very best soccer mom impression), much to the consternation of her son and her ex.
Finally, we have Elizabeth, a closeted 19-year-old college student who lives under the thumb of her tyrannical, conservative parents. In between fighting for her independence and being a good church-going daughter, she falls for a sexy classmate (Niala, played by Reshma Shetty) and gets caught up in a whirlwind romance that would make any queer woman’s head spin, let alone that of an innocent co-ed.
(left) Kate Siegel and Reshma Shetty, (right) Kate Siegel
All in all, we have three storylines about women dealing with difficult love lives at different stages of life. It’s a great premise, and there’s plenty of substance here, but sadly, the quality varies wildly among the threads.
It’s perhaps most unfortunate that the lesbian storyline suffers from a totally bizarre tonal shift. It’s a fairly standard “girl meets girl” tale, complete with familial pressure and coming out woes, but it swings wildly from campy and funny to deadly serious, often within the space of a single scene.
When we first encounter Niala, she’s walking into a classroom in slow motion with a hip-hop beat in the background, swinging her hips like she’s in a 90s rap video. It’s cute and funny — but more than a little clichéd. Even worse, she and Elizabeth actually have their first verbal exchange over a dropped pen.