Netflix has long been known as an LGBTQ friendly streaming service, but queer offerings seem to have really taken off this year. This spring alone has seen the release of gay-themed documentaries “Tiger King” and “Circus of Books,” and Netflix also recently launched Ryan Murphy’s popular “Hollywood.” Smaller in nature, but both worth checking out, are two new films with lesbian themes.
“The Half of It” is directed by Alice Wu, who many remember from her lesbian-themed “Saving Face” in 2004. In this film, newcomer Leah Lewis stars as teenager Ellie Chu, a bookish Chinese American living with her dad. Ellie seems to be the only Asian in her school in the (fictional) town of Squahamish, Washington. She makes money by writing essays for her classmates, but one day gets another kind of offer. Paul Munsky, played by Daniel Diemer, is a goofy football player who falls for Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), who is new in school but has been embraced quickly by the popular clique. Paul wants Ellie to write a letter to win Aster over—and she does. But while Paul swoons over Aster for her physical beauty, Ellie—who has never experienced love—looks behind the surface at who Aster really is.
It’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” through a Young Adult filter. The film can be bit predictable and I wish some of the supporting characters had a bit more depth, such as Becky Ann Baker, who plays a protective teacher of Ellie. The heart of the film, surprisingly, is not either love relationship, but the unlikely bond that develops between Ellie and Paul. For Ellie, it’s a friendship she never could have predicted. Chu anchors her character’s growth from someone who is shy and afraid to take risks to someone more accepting of herself. “The Half of It” becomes a film that is sweet and empowering without being annoying.
The more than 65-year relationship between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel is at the heart of the documentary, “A Secret Love.” The two women, both born in Canada, wound up in Chicago, meeting when Pat was 18 and Terry was 22. They became a couple and largely kept it to themselves over the years, living together and pretending to be cousins. Donahue was a catcher for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired the hit film, “A League of Their Own.”
The documentary is produced by Ryan Murphy, who is particularly ubiquitous these days. As the film opens, Terry’s niece, Diana, suggests that the two women enter a retirement facility. With plenty of archival footage, the film is full of wonderful moments looking back at the women’s lives. Terry’s baseball days were groundbreaking, and she carries around signed cards that fans eat up. She’s the one most people fall for first. “Everybody loves Terry. They put up with me only because of Terry,” Pat observes. Pat is the more serious of the two, but her feelings for Terry are never in doubt, as seen in the letters she writes to her true love. Pat looks back at her life lovingly, knowing the two women lived the life they wanted to in an era they weren’t supposed to. The central pair—full of charisma—easily carries the film.
“A Secret Love” was scheduled to premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival before that event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s available to the masses. It’s poignant and beautifully directed by Chris Bolan, who is Diana’s son.
“The Half of It” and “A Secret Love” are currently streaming on Netflix.