Liz in September has a fairly pointed synopsis. Reading “[Liz,] a terminally ill lesbian (Patricia Velasquez) bonds with a woman who lost her son to cancer”, we know from the beginning that this isn’t going to be the most upbeat film – it will fall into the category of queer tragedy (a very popular genre), and will be fairly melodramatic. The plot is predictable, but not without charm. Like a fairytale, a pretty young thing, Eva (Eloisa Maturen), gets turned around with a broken down car and finds herself in a new world, an island filled with lesbians: a group of gay friends who have come to stay on their friend’s resort for Liz’s birthday in the Carribean, like they do every year.
I watched this movie for Patricia Velasquez, out of loyalty and a desire to support projects which star out actors. To many she is best known for her roles in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns,1 and her brilliant turn as Marta in Arrested Development. Here, as Liz, the charming stud who doesn’t want anybody’s pity, Velasquez is grounded and not overly dramatic – in fact, she is subtle and fun.
There is a long tradition of this kind of character, the lesbian stud, the lesbian womaniser: she loves em’ and leaves ‘em. Arguably the most deeply embedded example of this can be found in Shane from Showtime’s The L Word, but the cool, confident lesbian who woos the pretty straight girl into the life of sappho also has a strong presence in lesbian cinema. If we look back to Clea DuVall in Jamie Babbit’s 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader, Lea Seydoux’s character in Blue is the Warmest Colour, or even the titular Carol of this year’s acclaimed Carol we find a number of examples that follow a similar path. Queer film operates, usually, by resting on the assumption that most of the people watching aren’t in on “it”, so to speak. As such, queer film frequently represents the creation of the gay self. As an audience we watch that transformation. Eva, Liz’s object of desire, doesn’t spend a huge amount of the film ruminating on her new identity. Nevertheless, her trepidation, Liz’s focus, are all common within the genre. But Liz in September is focused on topics beyond queerness, on mortality and legacy. However instead of injecting a refreshing change into the narrative, the addition of these themes left me wanting Liz in September to return to more well trodden ground, the kind of material it could do justice to.
There is, however, a serious charm to this film, even in its darker material. This mostly comes from the relationships between the group of women, the strongest element of the film. Liz in September is as its best when everyone is around the table, laughing, teasing, having fun, when we understand their backstories and see how each character fits together.
When the films veers into its more dramatic subject matter it loses its place, lacking the stamina to do justice to a cancer narrative. It’s risky subject matter at the best of times, too melodramatic to be taken seriously except at the hands of the most skilful director and screenwriter, and Liz in September just doesn’t quite manage to overcome its heavy handed approach. It goes back and forth from fun, summer lesbian shenanigans, and teetering and flailing while dealing with Liz and her illness, and Eva’s feelings about her son. That being said, the tragic elements to the film aren’t without merit, offering some of the film’s most visually pleasing sequences, with one particularly stunning moment coming underwater in the reef as Liz and Eva dive. Here the film looks beautiful, with water, as Liz dives and swims, becoming a nice motif throughout.
Admittedly, I came to this film not particularly well versed in Latin American cinema, but certainly well versed in lesbian cinema – it is in that vein that I took the most from it. The lovely lesbian poetry to Liz’s ex-wife being her best friend and main confidant brought some of the film’s best moments for me, and it is due to these moments that Liz in September will be pleasing for queer audiences, offering a sweet, if not sightly heavy handed romance for everyone else. In this respect, it takes its place in lesbian and queer cinema, as does Patricia Valesquez in her role as Liz.