Exactly what is better than chocolate?
Director Anne Wheeler answers this question in her most recent feature, the sexy but flawed romantic comedy, Better Than Chocolate. Set in Vancouver, the film chronicles the escapades of the young and vivacious Maggie, a law school drop out working at the local queer bookstore, 10% Books.
With her recently divorced mother and teenage brother unexpectedly about to live with her, and a new love in her life, Maggie must suddenly deal with coming out to her family and a host of other complications. Maggie’s personal dramas play against the backdrop of 10% Books’ struggle with the book-seizing Canada Customs (a scenario based on the real life struggles of Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore).
“The story chose me,” says Wheeler. “I loved that it had humour, strong characters, was set in Vancouver and was an independent film that had a sense of place.” Five years in the making, Better Than Chocolate had difficulty securing funding. “The subjects deterred funders who were worried that it would never be able to be shown on TV and would affect the revenues generated by the film,” says Wheeler. After much difficult legwork, final funding was secured from a German company and the production had a “go” with their relatively small budget.
What is the relationship between Wheeler (who’s straight) and the film’s queer content? Wheeler says that “many people have asked this question,” but she doesn’t think it matters or is relevant. “I am a child of the ’60s and I’ve lived in communes with all sorts of people — straight, bi or gay. And I am a curious, open person who wants to understand people and ways of living.”
Wheeler adds that “what’s important about the story is that it’s funny and sexy. And after making numerous documentaries I know what is real or not real. These skills and talents come into play when directing any story.”
One of the real delights of the film is the love story and subsequent lovemaking scenes between the two lead characters, Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) and Kim (Christina Cox). In regards to the lesbian sex scenes, Wheeler says that Dwyer and Cox “knew the score even before they came to the audition.
“Although there is always a certain tension when you have to take your clothes off in front of the camera,” from her point of view and that of the actresses, Wheeler says the scenes were “no different than a similar scene between a man and a woman. I think there’s a lovely chemistry between Maggie and Kim. This was new territory for both of them but they just plugged right in.”
Wheeler says that during the filming of the sex scenes, she would call out to the largely gay crew: “Could we have some lesbians over here to check this out. Does this look real?” and ask for suggestions and advice from those in the know.
A prominent and interesting subplot is the relationship between Judy (Peter Outerbridge), a transgendered singer, and Frances, the lesbian owner of 10% Books, played with hilarious awkwardness by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Few feature films have dared to show a romance between a lesbian and a transgendered woman, unfortunately, the portrayal of their relationship comes across as superficial.
Even though their romance eventually blossoms, Frances’s initial resistance to becoming involved with Judy is never clarified: “I just need more time” says Frances. Is she just a bookish type unskilled in the ways of love or is she dealing with gender issues? Other factors, like references to Judy becoming “a real woman after the surgery” and an overdeveloped interest in home decorating, make Judy seem like too many other stereotypical representations of transgendered characters.
Wheeler, however, says she “talked to many transgendered women and based the incident on a real life episode and one that was not the worst by far.” Wheeler’s referring to a scene in which Judy is bashed by a surprisingly ferocious lesbian in a bar washroom. She describes it as “an important scene in the film – one of the heavier moments which hits people as shocking because of its contrast to the humour of the rest of the film.”
Wheeler adds that she “loved the script because it hits a lot of issues with a lot of humour, so that the issues are almost not noticed during the film. And after viewing the film, when the viewer reflects on the movie, the issues begin to resonate. The issues in the film don’t polarize or alienate the audience, but lets them enjoy the characters.”
As a director of numerous documentaries, Wheeler is obviously interested in bringing social issues to the attention of a wider audience. She recently directed The Sleep Room, winner of the first Telefilm Special Human Rights Award for the film’s exposure of the LSD experimentation carried out on psychiatric patients in the 1950s. Wheeler’s other work includes the feature film Loyalties, which examines a complex relationship between a middle-class white woman and working class native woman, and The War Between Us , a documentary about the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.
Given Wheeler’s background, there is a discernible attempt to engage the audience of Better Than Chocolate in a number of social issues, from the threat of Canada Customs’ censorship to the difficulty of coming out, and many others. Ultimately, these issues are not explored or positioned strongly enough. They serve as only an interesting backdrop that propels the central love story. Canada Customs never does arrive at the bookstore as warned and Maggie really doesn’t come out to her mum Lila (Lila figures it out on her own).
Better than Chocolate definitely entertains with its humour and liberal doses of sex — from the lustful lesbian pursuits of Maggie and Kim to a hilarious scene involving Lila’s first encounter with vibrators. But it fails to be more than the light comedy that it is. The characters, from the frenzied bon-bon eating Lila to the sexually omnivorous bookstore assistant Carla, are attractive, funny and occasionally touching. But they generally seem two dimensional and their interactions play out more like a soap opera than a socially conscious drama.
In the end, Wheeler’s preference for humour wins out and Better Than Chocolate is successful at revealing what its title suggests — the bittersweet delights of love are better than chocolate.
Better Than Chocolate opens Fri, Aug 13.
Exactly what is better than chocolate?