My favorite "gay and lesbian movies with a strong female lead" tend to be both relatively obscure and catch me by surprise.
I had never heard of Leading Ladies until I was sleepily browsing Streaming Internet Movie Service one weekday night. As I read its description, I was intrigued but, of course, didn't have my hopes up. The Dead/Evil/Psycho Lesbian cliche has simply broken my heart one too many times, friends.
But alas, as I continued watching Leading Ladies, it dawned on me that this movie I had never heard of was actually.... good.
Imagine, if you will, a campy, lesbian Dirty Dancing minus the botched abortion, Johnny Castle, and watermelon carrying.
First, we have our protagonist, Toni, who is a quiet, somewhat dry, and androgynously-cute woman who has accepted being in her conventionally-attractive, feminine, star-ballroom-dancer sister's shadow. As a character, Toni is like a mashup of Darlene Connor and Willow Rosenberg. Which for some queer gals, and by "some" I mean "me," goes a long way. She also (spoiler alert!), at the beginning of the film, apparently doesn't know she's a lesbian yet.
Toni is surrounded by her sister Tasi, their melodramatic stage mother Sheri, and Tasi's (gay male) dance partner Cedric.
Tasi and Cedric are training for a ballroom dancing competition when their plans are derailed by Tasi's pregnancy. Toni decides to sub in for her sister on the condition that she get to choose her own partner. Her chosen partner is another woman- someone she met at a gay bar, while out one night with Cedric.
Lesbian shenanigans then ensue.
For instance, while at her first gay bar, Toni comes to a non-climactic realization of her own sexual orientation. After dancing with a woman, she's in the bathroom looking in the mirror trying to decide whether to leave her shirt partially unbuttoned.
A drag queen walks up to wash her hands in the sink next to Toni, sizes Toni up, and asks, "Is she hot?"
To which Toni first responds with a defensive, "No!" and then, a split second later, mutters a resigned, "....yes."
And, meh, that's it.
She's gay. She knows it. No big meltdown necessary. Which is how it sometimes actually is for people. Sometimes, certainly for me, the suckiest part about realizing I was gay wasn't the Being Gay part, but the part where other people seemed to care so much that I was gay.
Anyway, compared to the action-y D.E.B.S., the silly But I'm a Cheerleader, and the we're-just-kidding-or-are-we Itty Bitty Titty Committee, this plot perhaps doesn't sound like the most exciting. But, I found it to be a charming coming-out/sexual awakening story.
I like my female protagonists strong and possessing equanimity. And Toni, played by Laurel Vail, is a compelling performer as the composed "eye of the storm" around which the showier, more turbulent characters revolve.