Compared to other teacher-student romances that we’ve seen on the lesbian screen, including Mädchen in Uniform and the more recent Loving Annabelle, this is far more above-board. It’s legal, for one – Jackie is certainly over 18 – and Catherine is not actually her professor, (though she does give the younger woman plenty of extra help with her studies). Of course, there is an uneven power dynamic at play, along with the fact that Catherine is (admittedly) a serial dater of students.
What’s more disturbing – and far subtler – is the pseudo mother-daughter dynamic that springs up between them. Jackie is very obviously in need of a mother figure in her life, (made abundantly clear by a fight with her real mom on Thanksgiving) and Catherine picks up on this right away. Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene where she is bathing Jackie, and the younger woman asks what happened to all of the students who came before her. Catherine explains, simply and rather sadly, that they all left. "Am I different?" asks Jackie, completely vulnerable. "Would you believe me if I said yes?" answers the elder, looking quite maternal with a washcloth in hand and an earnest smile.
This discomfort puts a realistic edge on their otherwise exciting romance. It helps that Jackie is so savvy, that Catherine is so playful, and that their affair is clandestine. But scenes such as this one make it difficult to shake a vague sense of anxiety and transgression.
Things take a turn when Jackie gets a call from her old agent. Some bigwigs in Hollywood are looking to make Neptune 26 into a major feature, and they’re interested in having Jackie reprise her role. She begins traveling between LA and Bloomington, pulling double duty as a student and a star, which puts a huge strain on her relationship with Catherine. For all of her love, the older woman is on the possessive side, though she never lets on until a pivotal, later scene.