“Do you understand why I love this movie so much?” asks Sav Rodgers, the director whose adoration of Kevin Smith’s 1997 romcom Chasing Amy has led them on a pilgrimage to parts of New Jersey so ungentrified that, 25 years later, they’re — seriously — almost all still there. “No,” says Shana Lory. Which is a bit of a shock, given that she was the casting director.
Though it set out to be a love letter, Rodgers’ never less than engaging film was always facing an uphill struggle, and it’s to their credit — to prevent spoilers, they/them pronouns will be used here just for the purposes of this review — that they’re even prepared to debate such “problematic” material at a time when pop culture is cheering on the cancellation of major artists such as Pablo Picasso by people with less gravitas than the UK’s Princess of Wales, who at least can say she has an MA in the field.
To be clear, there has been no revisionism around Chasing Amy; much of what is said about it now was said about it then: in the world of comic books, a straight, white man (Ben Affleck’s Holden) falls for a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa), and they enter into an on-off relationship. That sort of didn’t fly then, and it sort of doesn’t fly now — and it’s this sort of that forms the backbone of Rodgers’ film. To quote associate producer Bob Hawk, “There were a lot of question marks in that film.” To put it mildly.
Rodgers first put their interest out there in a Ted Talk, for once a really rather heartfelt and moving one, in which they recalled being gay-bashed as a young teenager by people they thought were their friends: “See, it sucks when everyone else knows you’re queer before you do. Because then you don’t have anything to protect yourself with.” Rodgers found solace in their mother’s VHS of Smith’s film, which, for all its clumsiness and mansplaining, is quite respectful and progressive (for the time) in its take on sexuality. That said, Rodgers also says, “To be fair, I didn’t know there were other gay movies.”
With that established, Chasing Chasing Amy splinters into two parallel narratives, one involving Rodgers exploring the film that changed the course of their life, the other being a very thorough analysis of Smith’s film, the dynamics that fed into it, and its rep: why do LGBTQ+ people not like it, and what makes good representation anyway?
The personal aspect of the story is the weakest, sadly, as Rodgers unpacks their courtship of the incredibly charismatic Riley. But what at first seems self-indulgent soon turns out to be very necessary, as the real story of Chasing Amy unfolds.
Initially, this is catnip for aficionados of ’90s indie cinema, in particular the rise of the Sundance movie and a genre that brought Smith into kinship with lesbian film-makers Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner, whose 1994 film Go Fish had much in common with Smith’s Clerks the same year: cheap, black and white, and wholly relatable. Only, in the ’90s, white straight men were apparently way more relatable, and Smith struck a seemingly lucrative deal with Miramax.
“Kevin got an empire, and we were just some dykes,” says Turner. As she knows very well, however, this is not how it all played out, and Turner’s savvy commentary becomes increasingly on point. She fully acknowledges, for example, that she was the inspiration for Amy, having struck up a “romantic friendship” with Scott Mosier, the film’s producer. From the timeline the film establishes, it seems that Smith took that premise and used it as a way to process his hurt feelings after his short-term relationship with Adams — star of his sophomore film Mallrats — went south.
It’s to Rodgers’ credit that they take all this on board, and although they’re clearly kind of horrified by the hornet’s nest the film kicks — which is nothing at all to do with modish identity policing and reflects more on personal issues, plus the toxic shadow of Harvey Weinstein — they put it in there (“It’s the not the movie I set out to make, but it’s the movie we have”). Funnily enough, though, this emotional turbulence only serves to back up Rodgers’ initial thesis about the film, which, once little more than a teenage hunch turns out to be rather profound. Smith puts it into words when, commenting on sexuality and gender, he accepts his ignorance but says, “I can identify with love.”
It sounds very simple, written down like that, but when Rodgers’ own complicated (but not really all that complicated) love story is finally told, it makes a great, great deal of sense.