Facing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997)

An illustration of the titular Amy (Joey Lauren Adams) from CHASING AMY in front of a blue comic-illustration-style background.
illustration by Tom Ralston

The first few times I saw Chasing Amy, I loved it. Central to my adoration was the inimitable Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams)—her confidence and swagger as she sat on a playground swing set and impishly demonstrated the act of fisting with her hands, interrogated heterosexual men about their limited perceptions of sexuality and desire, and played gratuitous tonsil hockey with another woman on the crowded dance floor of legendary NYC dyke bar Meow Mix (RIP). I loved it for its contrasts: Joey Lauren Adams’s high-pitched voice and petite blonde frame belying the toughness of her character; the lighthearted montages and the shouting match in the rain; the alternating feelings of possibility and dread as this unlikely romance between a lesbian-identified woman and a hapless straight man barrels along like a freight train headed for a low bridge. I loved it for its wistful ending, and the knowledge it engendered: sometimes important people show up in your life for a short while, to teach you something or escort you to the next place. At some point it might be incumbent upon one or both of you to own up to your shortcomings, wish one another well, and let go. 

Growing up in rural New Jersey in the 1990s, my friends and I didn’t have much to do except see movies, go bowling, hang out at the mall, do donuts in empty parking lots, or loiter over endless diner refills. Everyone knew someone who worked at a Wawa or Quick-Chek convenience store, and Kevin Smith—a Jersey-native indie filmmaker only eight or nine years our senior, whose movies were steeped in the very cultures and locations of the state we were learning to be adults in—was our people. I first saw Chasing Amy, his third feature after the low-budget phenomenon Clerks (1994) and its questionable follow-up Mallrats (1995), the year of its 1997 release, when Smith came to my New Jersey college to screen the film and do a Q & A afterward. I remember the thunderous applause when he walked onstage. I remember the crass joke he cracked once the cheering settled down. I remember realizing that I was in the presence of a local celebrity. Second only to Bruce Springsteen, what other artist epitomized such a sense of pride in our home state? I don’t recall anything else he said that night, but the character of Alyssa lingered in my mind long after the lights went up and we all dispersed to our dorm rooms. Smoking in bed, effortless in a leather jacket, propping her leg up on a rickety table to show off the scars she’d gotten during ill-advised teenage sexual encounters, balancing a cordless phone on her shoulder in an oversized Maple Leafs jersey, yelling at a referee. Brazen, Alyssa was. Unapologetic. Smiling with the light of a thousand suns and swearing like a sailor.

I could appreciate Clerks for its wit and gritty aesthetic, and I’d later find Smith’s religious satire Dogma highly entertaining, as well—especially Alanis Morissette’s iconic turn as a ringletted, cartwheeling god—but Chasing Amy, with its more narratively conventional approach to storytelling, reigned supreme in my heart. A kind of Romeo and Juliet for our time, with less tragic consequences. A rom-com for the rest of us. The fact that my college boyfriend bore a passing physical resemblance to Holden, Ben Affleck’s lanky leading man with the Dylan McKay hair, didn’t hurt. Most of my friends were gay, and while I considered myself an ally, I did not yet identify as queer. I loved men … smart, funny, creative, heterosexual men. Ellen DeGeneres had only just come out of the closet, and most of the explicitly gay movie characters I knew were the men of Jeffrey (1995), Philadelphia (1993), and The Birdcage (1996). Willow Rosenberg was several years from performing euphemistic magic spells with Tara Maclay, and I was not yet aware of the ‘90s lesbian classics (like Bound, All Over Me, and The Watermelon Woman) that would come to define my twenties. How cool was it, I thought, that a straight guy had made a movie with a feisty dyke at the forefront? How fun to watch Smith’s Silent Bob—the View Askewniverse’s resident Yoda-esque truth-teller—monologue with surprising self-awareness, articulating his regrets about the mistakes he’d made with the titular Amy and imparting a lesson in fragile masculinity to a struggling Holden, while conveniently serving up the movie’s central thesis to the viewer on a dinged-up diner platter. 

The first girl I fell for also smoked and wore a leather jacket. Like Holden, I loved her immediately; like Alyssa, it took me a while to reconcile the place my heart was leading me with the person I believed myself to be. She was my closest friend at my job, all blue eyes and red hair, all leopard-print skirts and iron-on patches, pinup chic and riot grrrl. Vogue and Bikini Kill. A Southern sweetheart unafraid to speak her mind. Another study in contrasts. I wished I could be that cool. I wished for experience I didn’t have. Alyssa would have known what to do; Alyssa would have led her into a dark corner and kissed the vermilion lipstick right off her mouth, then taken her home and used her agile fingers and enormous tongue in all the right ways, gushing about it all the next morning while stuffing envelopes with her Sapphic sisters. As for me, I just sat there, the day I realized I’d never wanted anyone so badly in my whole life, sweating in the throat-choking heat of the Russian & Turkish Baths on 10th Street where we’d gone for a ritual afternoon of female bonding, and said nothing.

Something like seven years after that day at the baths, I watched Chasing Amy again. I’d long lost touch with that girl, but my fierce, overpowering feelings for her remained fresh—the world-shaking revelation that had been building for months until I allowed myself to acknowledge it, and the concurrent truth that I didn’t know myself at all. Or, rather, that the self I’d known all along could suddenly be different one day—that the rules could change at any moment. I’d found myself a serious girlfriend, and then another, and after a brief period of identifying as bisexual, I decided I was done with men for good. Dating women was more complicated, but much more satisfying. I felt like a kid again, once more awash in the heady adolescent waves of first loves. A second sort of puberty, this time bringing only welcome physical changes (my menstrual cramps mysteriously ceased, never to return). Drunk on queerness, I wondered why it took me so long to figure out this delicious open secret. In an optimistic moment of revisiting the pop culture of my youth, I cued up my old stand-by for the first time in ages, anticipating a two-hour comfort journey where, by virtue of my evolving life experiences, I could now identify more readily with this character I’d always admired. 

Surprisingly, it bugged me. Despite my pleasure at clocking a handful of things that weren’t as recognizable or resonant during my first few spins around the Red Bank crew—the aforementioned Meow Mix, at which I had since spent many a karaoke night; Guinevere Turner’s post-Watermelon Woman, pre-L Word cameo; the homoerotic tension between Holden and his best friend/business partner Banky (“Don’t kid yourself, that boy loves you in a way that he ain’t ready to deal with,” observes their pal Hooper)—the movie fell short this time, and was nowhere near as romantic as I remembered. I now deemed Holden insecure and reactive, clueless and misguided. What the hell did Alyssa see in him? Even Banky, for all his hostility and envy, was quicker to match her energy by trading raunchy anecdotes with her, later correctly predicting the heartbreak that awaited them. My brain knew Alyssa could do better; what was worse, my heart didn’t believe her anymore. I didn’t buy that she would waste her time fielding Holden’s myopic questions or challenging his heterocentric views. I didn’t buy that she would be so angry about his spontaneous confession of love that she’d jump out of his car in the middle of a thunderstorm, nor that she would run back to throw her arms around him less than a minute after she’d gotten my personal favorite line reading out of her system (“I AM FUCKING GAY! THAT’S WHO I AM!”). I couldn’t decide who I disliked more, him for being such a bonehead, or her for putting up with him. Was Alyssa just a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, dropped into the script for the sole purpose of making Holden’s mediocre life more interesting and helping him grow as a person? Fuck that, I thought. Leave it to a straight guy to invent such an unrealistic character. Like so many other things from that time, this movie that had once felt groundbreaking now appeared rife with unfortunate tropes. Conversations in my friend groups and internet opinions agreed: Amy had not aged well.

In the decade or so that followed that viewing, I broke off my longest relationship to date. I moved across the country. I went to grad school. I moved back. Despite my best efforts, I underwent an extended singlehood, as everyone around me got married and had kids, and/or split up and found new partners with what seemed like a surplus of ease. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered when I’d ever find romantic love again.

And then my mother died. 

Once more, the world as I knew it was over. Mom and I had been as close as Lorelai and Rory Gilmore since day one, dishing about the triumphs and struggles and minutiae of our lives with a similar fervor and devotion. In the stark, unthinkable absence of her warmth and vivacity, nothing looked familiar, not even myself. For the first time ever, I started watching horror movies, dark tales with titles that sounded like memoirs I could write. Ready or Not. The Night House. A Quiet Place. Bodies Bodies Bodies. What Keeps You Alive. Scream. The Final Girls. Us. In each, I found something that mirrored my grief, and helped me make sense of the nightmare I’d endured during the long, terrible months of her illness. Alongside this newfound fixation was another pop culture project, an attempt to integrate the person I’d been with the person I’d become by way of indulging in a smorgasbord of seminal ‘90s favorites—all of them love stories that had once meant something to me. The breezy romance of Clueless. The slow burn of Fried Green Tomatoes. The chance encounters of Sleepless in Seattle. The boisterous partnership of My Cousin Vinny. The dystopian passion of Fight Club. And somewhere in there, even though it had broken my heart before, the siren song of Chasing Amy

Bracing myself for disappointment, while simultaneously allowing for a sliver of hope that the old girl might have something left for me, I decided to give it one more go. To my delight, I had circled back to being all in. I laughed at jokes I’d forgotten. I smiled whenever someone used a pay phone, or a landline, or a pager. I cried with Alyssa as she shouted in the rain, I cried with Holden as he realized he had lost her, I even cried as Silent Bob gave his diner speech. My earlier complaints fell away; I had seen the worst of what life had to offer, and on the other side lay the awareness that what mattered most was the way we care for one another. These characters were funny and weird and damaged and raw. They wanted connection, and they were trying. I thought about my mother on her deathbed, holding my hand and telling me she would always love me. I thought about my exes—both partners and friends—and marveled at how much affection and vulnerability had passed between us, even among the hurt and dysfunction, the blunders and betrayals. I thought about the myriad versions of me that had watched this movie so many times over the years and felt a giant surge of compassion for her, in all her extremes. “I love this again,” I said to myself as the credits rolled, gratefully clicking out of the browser window, and, for the briefest of moments, longing for the tangible satisfaction of ejecting a VHS tape. 

As the media-makers of my generation approach middle age and reflect on their formative years, I see them creating dark tales set in the ‘90s (Yellowjackets, Little Fires Everywhere, Cruel Summer—this last one coincidentally starring Kevin Smith’s adult daughter, Harley Quinn). It makes sense to me that we would want to explore the things that thrill and unnerve us within a framework that feels long enough ago to be novel, yet eternally familiar, and thus comforting. What do we make of that pivotal time in our lives now that we are grown, and the fears, traumas, tensions, and exhilarations that informed and alchemized us along the way? How do we pull all of that together into some meaningful composite of our particular, layered selves, and then put it out into the world for others to consume and consider? How does this ‘90s renaissance stack up against actual ‘90s media? Perhaps this is a rite of passage for every generation, rewriting the dynamics of our youth to exorcise some demon or other through characters and situations we call into being. Try as we might to recapture that era, we will never be quite as impressionable as we were then—though, of the stories that have played a role in shaping me, the best ones tend to reveal more nuance as time goes on. 

It can be tempting to consider the climactic fracturing between both of Chasing Amy’s main relationships—Alyssa and Holden, and Holden and Banky—through a series of “if only”s (if only Alyssa had been honest about her history with other men; if only Holden had felt secure enough not to demand a threesome; if only Banky hadn’t been so juvenile and codependent, perhaps things could have turned out differently), but I believe this misses the point. These characters are not meant to stagnate, or walk the same sunset path together until the end of time. Even Jay and Silent Bob grow weary of the repetitive and reductive adventures of their comic book alter egos, as illustrated by Holden and Banky. This was always going to end. Change comes for us all.

More than 25 years after its release, I love Chasing Amy for its wisdom and humor, for its quirks, for its highly specific sense of time and place. Yes, parts of it are dated and problematic; yes, it’s basically a textbook case of bisexual erasure. I can never even quite decide if it’s feminist or not. But thanks to a proliferation of LGBTQ+ stories exploding onto our big and small screens in recent years, no longer must any one queer character stand in for all queer characters. Alyssa doesn’t have to look like anyone I know, or make the decisions I might make. She gets to love Holden however she likes; she gets to just be Alyssa Jones, her exact, over-the-top, unpredictable, complicated, flawed—and, of course, idiosyncratic—queer self. She’s not perfect—nor is Holden, or Banky, or Jay or Silent Bob, or her cartoonishly militant separatist friends, or any other character (with the possible exception of the delightful Hooper). But I don’t hold that against them. I can forgive the film its missteps, with the same tenderness I forgive its players for their messy communication and the chaos of their choices. It’s the same tenderness with which I’ve forgiven people in my life who have caused me harm, and with which I too wish to be forgiven. 

It’s not just nostalgia talking, or the fact that watching (nearly) any Kevin Smith movie will inevitably ring some ancient, sonorous bell inside me—like reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or hearing a Tori Amos song—reaching through my many lives and transporting me back to a time when I believed in love with my whole heart, however short-lived it may be, or how long it might take to reveal itself. Scarred as I am, propping my leg up on a rickety table to tell the tales, these days I see Chasing Amy with a quieter kind of appreciation. Nothing lasts forever. Identities are useful until they’re not. Say you’re sorry. Make your art. Keep looking for the next right thing.