Later, when they go on a first date, Niala seems almost predatory, demanding public affection and practically licking her chops in anticipation of getting Elizabeth home. It’s confounding — the audience is left to ponder whether Niala is just a sexy, forward lady or a total jerk. Her oddly hostile roommates don’t help the situation either — making all of the lesbian characters in the film come off as unlikeable people.
It does serve to make our doe-eyed heroine a more sympathetic character, however artificially. Her parents are almost caricatures of angry, controlling family members. Her father is judgmental and downright mean, while her mother barely even speaks. She’s a classic example of a young woman being pinned down by conservative family pressure, while it’s clear from her scenes with Niala that she’s absolutely ready to embrace her sexuality and be herself.
However, it’s difficult to root for a character that engages in an abysmal poetry-reading scene. If there’s one cliché that lesbian filmmaking would truly be better off without, it is this.
Thankfully, the other storylines are more interesting and entirely without the tonal weirdness (or amateur poetry reading). The Doris story is extremely poignant, since it’s essentially a simple meditation on finding true love late in life. As one might expect, Dee is an acting force to be reckoned with, and Williams is superb as the infinitely lovable August. It’s the most bittersweet of the threads, but in every way, also the most resonant.
Ally Sheedy’s turn as Laurie is also successful, mostly because of the frustrating realism of the situation. While the romance between her and coach Roy isn’t exactly on fire, her other relationships are well developed and nuanced. The scenes with her son are particularly well done, and every appearance of Chelsea Handler is a cause for celebration.
(left to right) Chelsea Handler and Ally Sheedy
If only Roy himself weren’t such a dud — one wishes that the stereotypical “cougar” aspects were played down a bit more, and that the romance itself had a bit more life to it.
The film looks and sounds like a fairly polished low-budget effort. The cinematography is simple and professional, the music inoffensive and fun (minus the cheesiness of Niala’s initial walk-in). It’s about on par with your average queer film festival fare — not a headliner, but certainly a product of capable hands.
Steam does do love scenes quite well — living up to its title nicely. The aforementioned chemistry between Elizabeth and Niala is particularly appealing — making their scenes together really light up the screen, especially once they stop talking and start kissing.
It’s far from groundbreaking and rough around the edges, but Steam certainly has its moments. Come for the attractive leads and lesbian storyline, but stay for the depth and the Ruby Dee.
Steam is available on DVD.