Does Lesbian Rom-Com “Better Than Chocolate” Hold Up 20 Years Later?

The queer Canadian flick is a charming, bizarre treat that was surprisingly ahead of its time.

“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young woman explores a cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.

Twenty years ago, queer filmmakers north of the U.S.-Canada border gifted us Better Than Chocolate, a lesbian rom-com that is bizarrely charming and surprisingly ahead of its time.

The film made its Canadian premiere on August 13, 1999, and arrived stateside in 2001. For context, we’re talking six years before marriage equality became the law of the land in Canada. The idea of achieving that feat seemed miles away from American public’s consciousness, too (marriage equality was legalized nationwide in June 2015, which feels like a lifetime but was actually only four years ago). “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still legal in the U.S. Lesbians had Stone Butch Blues and Gender Trouble, but queer theory as we know it today was still blossoming.

Hell, even the language we used to describe ourselves and our community was different: Gays and lesbians used terms like “queer” as an act of reclamation less frequently. The word transsexual, now considered outdated by most and offensive by many trans people, was pretty commonplace. Even crazier: The word transgender entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003, four years after this film premiered.
 

Better Than Chocolate was director Anne Wheeler and screenwriter Peggy Thompson’s lesbian pièce de résistance. The film is low on Wheeler’s relatively impressive résumé, but for Thompson, a queer woman and film scholar who teaches screenwriting in British Columbia, it was significant. It’s also really fucking gay. I mean that in the best and worst ways possible.

Our protagonist, the bright-eyed, curly-haired Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) meets the woman of her dreams, butch heartthrob-slash-starving artist Kim (Christina Cox), at the worst possible time: Her mother Lila (Wendy Crewson) and younger brother Paul (Kevin Mundy) are on their way to crash with her in Vancouver after Lila’s catastrophic divorce. Maggie, who dropped out of law school to work at a lesbian-owned sex shop called Ten Percent Books (!) and who dances with her queer friends at the Cat’s Ass Club (!!), is—get this—still in the closet. Implausible, I know, but bear with me.

Better Than Chocolate (1999)
One of the 30-plus screenshots I took from this film so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

The core sources of tension are Maggie’s unspoken feelings for Kim, which are obvious to literally every other character except her oblivious, chocolate-addicted mother, and the internalized shame that continually sends her hooking up with Kim in bathroom stalls, out of view from her mom. She’s comfortable with her sexual orientation but afraid to confide in Lila. I’d have more sympathy if Lila seemed even half as “traditional” as Maggie makes her out to be. Underneath her suburban housewife exterior is a clear semblance of wokeness. When Lila finds a stash of vibrators and dildos under Maggie’s bed after lamenting her newfound singleness, she proceeds to masturbate… to some opera. This occurs after Lila’s self-pitying monologue about how chocolate is the only “pleasure” she’ll ever get since getting divorced in her middle age of course means she’ll absolutely, 100% never have sex again. Ah-ha, a not-so-subtle reference to the movie’s title! (The vibrator wasn’t actually Maggie’s, which awkwardly comes to light after the fact, and I don’t have enough words to explain the opera plot point. I barely have enough words to relay the interesting B-plots. Hang in there.)

Better Than Chocolate
Lila’s face upon discovering the rabbit vibe. Note the mouthfull of chocolate.

In between these dual “will she, won’t she” tensions, we meet Judy (Peter Outerbridge), a trans woman who’s about to have bottom surgery; Frances (Ann-Marie MacDonald), the butch owner of Ten Percent Books; and Carla (Marya Delver), Maggie and Frances’ vivacious, proudly slutty bisexual coworker. Oh—and there’s a separate B-plot about Canadian customs officials holding BDSM manuals and other erotic books at the border. It gives the film some historical context, makes for a suitably dramatic climax, and—because this is a movie—gets Maggie naked in public in a scenario that somehow manages to keep her in character.

Oddly, the tensions that enraptured me most while watching this film weren’t between Maggie and Kim or Maggie and her mother; they were between Judy and Lila, who spark up an unlikely but extremely wholesome friendship, and Judy and Frances, who are also love interests. Judy actually asks Frances out fairly early in the film and is gently but firmly shot down, which put a bad taste in my mouth. It isn’t apparent yet if Frances rejects Judy’s advances because she genuinely isn’t interested or because she doesn’t truly see Judy as a woman. That ambiguity is only bolstered when Judy is harassed and then physically attacked in the women’s restroom by a transphobic lesbian and Frances, who’d seemed receptive to another advance from Judy in the previous scene, does nothing to intervene. Fortunately, Maggie and Kim swoop in to save the day, which is a jarring reminder of just how much trans women need cis queer allies, and also #CoupleGoals.

Things aren’t looking so good for Judy’s platonic relationships, either: Right before the film’s climax, she’s outed by accident to Lila when the mailman rings the doorbell with a package for Jeremy, not Judy. Lila handles it poorly but comes around, and they wind up channeling Lila’s frustration and Judy’s pent-up rage in the face of rejection from her transphobic parents by throwing paint and drinking themselves silly. Spoiler alert: Judy gets her happy ending, leaning in for a passionate embrace from Frances after they’ve confessed their mutual love. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) be damned!

Better Than Chocolate (1999)
Lila (R), who isn’t really the villain she’s made out to be by Maggie, and Judy (L), who truly deserved better.

Granted, I can’t give this movie a rave review. Better Than Chocolate is cheesy as fuck. I mean, there’s a reason it faded into relative obscurity, overshadowed by more popular queer films like 1986’s Desert Hearts, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, and, later, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. It unfolds like a masterclass in C-list ’90s cinema: poorly written script, decent-at-best acting, too many lesbian tropes to count, painfully heavy-handed messaging.

It’s trite and very white. As a bisexual woman, I feel the need to point out Carla’s hyper-sexuality, which plays into the enduring stereotype that bisexual people are just “greedy.” Still, I can’t deny that this lighthearted lesbian film tackled big topics like government censorship, familial rejection, and infighting within the lesbian community, all of which we’re still wrestling with today. I can see why it scored a nod for Outstanding Film—Limited Release from GLAAD in 2000 (Boys Don’t Cry won, in case you were wondering).

Without spoiling all of it, I will give Better Than Chocolate this: It actually concludes with happy resolutions for all of its LGBTQ characters, subverting the all-too-common “Bury Your Gays” trope we’ve unfortunately come to expect from queer cinema and television of yore. It features a coming-out story line, yes, but it isn’t a coming-out film. Better Than Chocolate is more like a family portrait disguised as a rom-com disguised as a coming-of-age tale.

And if its hokey ’90s trappings and mediocre acting are too much for you, just squint your eyes and listen closely to its fabulously dyke-y soundtrack, which features Ani DiFranco and plenty of tracks written specifically for the movie. There’s a treat here for pretty much everyone.

Buy, rent, or stream Better Than Chocolate on YouTube or Amazon Video.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella