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
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
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
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
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
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
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