Better Than Chocolate is a Canadian romantic comedy directed by Anne Wheeler. Released in 1999, the film was, and continues to be, ahead of the curve in its depictions of lesbian love, life, and community. The film follows the life of Maggie, a recent college dropout who works at a lesbian bookstore, Ten Percent Books, where she lives until she is forced to get a real apartment when her mom and brother move in with her. She also works as a dancer at The Cat’s Ass, a nearby lesbian nightclub. Maggie meets Kim, an artist living out of her van, the same day her mother calls, and Maggie invites her to move in with her as well. Most of the comedic action ensues in the first few days after Maggie’s mother Lila and brother Paul move into the apartment, as Maggie and Kim must navigate their new relationship in secret.
Throughout the film, Maggie has a variety of interactions with other lesbians and queer women, most notably Frances, her boss, who is occupied for much of the film with fighting customs for her confiscated books, and with fellow nightclub performer Judy Squires. Two romances play out during the film, one between Maggie and Kim, and another between Frances and Judy. In addition to the positive portrayal of lesbian love between Maggie and Kim, the film also provides a look at the acceptance and rejection Judy feels as a trans lesbian woman.
Unlike many of the sexualized depictions of lesbians in popular culture, Better Than Chocolate shows that sexual relationships between women are more than steamy sex. Maggie and Kim’s relationship is cute and sexy, not just sexualized, and they are not framed for the “male gaze,” rather, camera angles allow for a sense of privacy without being too far removed to show their intimacy. They do have sex their first night together, but despite their relationship moving along fast, their intimacy is realistic and loving. Not only do they laugh together, but they embrace the awkwardness of getting to know each other, both in and out of bed.
In order for Maggie and Kim’s relationship to work in the end, however, Maggie must be open to the world, specifically her mother, about her feelings for Kim. Ultimately, this is only possible because both characters, mother and daughter, grow during the course of the film. Lila is the one who finally brings the topic up and asks them what is going on, and at this point, she is ready to be open to her daughter. But when Maggie is unable to tell her mother that she loves Kim, the relationship is temporarily broken. Lila’s development is important, however, because it offers an alternative narrative in which a child’s homosexuality can actually bring a family closer together rather than tearing it apart. Lila is willing to open her eyes and accept Maggie’s sexuality and decisions, and the end of the film provides a moment of resolution for mother and daughter.
Even though it is ultimately resolved, this break in their relationship is hard on both Maggie and Kim, and both rely on Judy to vent their feelings and ask for advice and comfort. Judy also supports Lila, befriending her upon her arrival, out of concern for her loneliness. Rejected by her parents and habitually attacked and mocked by some patrons of The Cat’s Ass, Judy lives perhaps the loneliest life of any of them, and yet she never gives up or stops asking to be taken seriously. Even though Judy’s character is not played by a trans woman, her character is not treated as a joke; instead Judy is a character with depth. It is very important for her to distinguish herself from male drag artists, and more than anything she would like to be accepted as a woman and as a lesbian woman by other queer women. After all, she too has hopes and dreams and a desire to love and be loved. Also important is her refusal to forget her rage. She has no sympathy for her parents, and, as her performance at the club shows, no sympathy for those who disrespect her gender.
Refreshingly, both relationships end happily. While many queer films culminate in tragic death or focus on loneliness, it is a tragedy that brings them together. In this way, the film provides a happy ending for these four characters while still being able to address issues of violence and hatred that comes both from society at large and from within the lesbian community. The positivity at the end of the film is a stark contrast to the life and death of Willa Cather’s Paul. Written more than 90 years before Better Than Chocolate was released, Paul, like Judy and to some extent Maggie, feels isolated and trapped, but instead of being exiled for their behavior, the two women are able to find love and acceptance. Maggie takes power into her own hands by deciding to protest book censorship and her own personal censorship of herself. Judy decides to be her authentic self and to lung into love. Hopefully this film will continue to shape more recent narratives into ones where this is possible.