If you’re the kind of person who reads film reviews, the chances are that there has been a time in your life when a specific movie has become an all-consuming obsession, a movie that you’ve returned to so frequently that it’s become like an old familiar friend to take comfort in. If you’re queer, trans, gender nonconforming, or struggled to see yourself reflected anywhere on screen or in the media, then that film might have been a rare exception where you did (even though you might’ve had to squint a little), and it likely got you through some tough, isolated times. It might have even helped you discover and embrace your identity, or just made you feel that bit better about yourself so that you were able to go out and face the world.
For filmmaker Sav Rodgers, the movie that became his “life raft”—as he describes it—was writer-director Kevin Smith’s 1997 indie comedy Chasing Amy. Growing up in Kansas, he stumbled across the film in his mother’s DVD collection in 2008 when he was 12 years old and working his way through Ben Affleck’s acting back catalogue, having discovered the star through his role in 2003’s Daredevil. Although Rodgers describes staging a “Ben Affleck Film Festival with an audience of one” in his living room, it was Chasing Amy that would have the most profound impact on him.
It was a time before “queer content” went mainstream, before streamers offered neatly curated LGBTQ+ sections, and long before there were hit LGBTQ-centric series made specifically for adolescents like Heartstopper, Young Royals, or Love Victor. In any case, Rodgers hadn’t actively been searching for an LGBTQ+ related movie, but when he happened to come across Chasing Amy, that film’s vibrant, confident, and provocative queer characters—Hooper X (played by Dwight Ewell) and Alyssa Jones (played by Joey Lauren Adams)—spoke to him and become incredibly meaningful.
His relationship with Chasing Amy led the young filmmaker to do a TED Talk in December 2018 focused on his love for Smith’s rom-com. During the talk he described how multiple viewings (he’s now watched it at least 200 times, and at one point watched it every day for a month) saved him when he was being badly bullied at high school and struggling with suicidal thoughts. It was a connection to a movie that would continue to sustain him. “The spirit of Chasing Amy kept me alive for years to come”, Rodgers shares. As well as teaching him life skills, describing the movie as “a roadmap of how to not fuck up your relationship”.
When his TED Talk went online the following year, it caught the attention of actress Brie Larson, who retweeted the video, helping to get it noticed by Adams, Affleck, and Kevin Smith himself, who agreed to meet with Rodgers and not only go on camera to talk about Chasing Amy, but also to support him as he went about making his debut feature documentary, Chasing Chasing Amy. The documentary would go on to premiere at last month’s Tribeca Festival and was the Closing Night selection at the 2023 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival.
Rodgers’ passion for Smith’s film and what it’s meant to him is undeniable and engaging in itself, but as we witness the filmmaker set out to make his documentary “tribute” exploring the origins, release, and legacy of Chasing Amy, he begins to realize that there are more layers to the story than he’d anticipated, beyond the movie being labelled “problematic” by some, especially in the queer community. What makes this documentary so absorbing is the fluidity of its structure, leading to some truly unexpected places, and the way Rodgers lets us into the process of its creation.
Although it wasn’t his original intention to be on screen, Rodgers is right at the centre of the film and makes for an admirably unguarded protagonist who we witness coming of age as a trans man over several years during the making of Chasing Chasing Amy. In the tradition of documentary filmmakers who are integral to the stories they tell, such as Morgan Spurlock, Nick Broomfield, and Michael Moore, we follow Rodgers as he interviews his contributors and navigates his changing approach to his subject. We’re invited into Rodgers’ family home, spend a considerable portion of the film’s running time with him and his girlfriend Riley, and witness their relationship deepen and flourish. As a couple they communicate with a beautiful sincerity and directness that recalls Ben Affleck’s heart on his sleeve speech as Holden to Alyssa in the car scene in Chasing Amy, something Rodgers acknowledges at one point when he catches himself unintentionally paraphrasing Holden.
Rodgers’ Kevin Smith pilgrimage takes him to many of Chasing Amy’s New Jersey locations (which look pretty much unchanged since the 90s), and it’s a delight to see him wide-eyed, taking in Jack’s Music Shoppe, the ice rink, the arcade where Alyssa and Holden play skee-ball, the diner where Holden meets with Jay and Silent Bob, and the convenience store that was also the setting for Smith’s acclaimed 1994 debut Clerks. Initially spellbound, as Rodgers becomes more worldly before our eyes, he gradually comes to see these locations as real, everyday places. Similarly we see a touching friendship with Kevin Smith build over several years, with Rodgers beginning to view his hero as human without losing any admiration for him.
There’s real visual flair on display here, as comic book panels (a nod to Chasing Amy of course) take us from one sequence to the next, a motif that continues with striking candy coloured backdrops for the film’s contributor interviews. There’s discerning use of brief movie clips that both illustrate and enrich what’s being discussed, while also making the documentary easily accessible to anyone who hasn’t seen Smith’s film. With some punchy editing by Sharika Ajaikumar, we’re quickly immersed into the mid-90s indie filmmaking scene, a period when some titles broke into the mainstream media conversation and achieved considerable box office success, with the Sundance Film Festival and Harvey Weinstein a crucial part of that world. Rodgers succinctly contextualizes Chasing Amy‘s emergence from that cultural landscape, its place in Smith’s career, and the initial response to the movie, including praise from fellow filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the majority of critics such as Roger Ebert, who described it as “terrific”, as seen in archive footage.
“If queer cinema was a bus, Chasing Amy would be outside the bus”, according to New York Times critic Teo Bugbee, one of the queer film experts Rodgers speaks with for a 2023 take on the movie, gaining some fun and insightful analysis from Fire Island filmmaker Andrew Ahn and critics like Trish Bendix. As he conducts these interviews, Rodgers discovers that he’s not the only one to have felt empowered by Chasing Amy. “This movie is so accidentally good at talking about biphobia”, The Mary Sue writer Princess Weekes argues. “It taught me the importance—at least at that time—of labeling myself as bi and not allowing anyone to tell me that I wasn’t queer enough”, Weekes adds. While Dr Sarah Jen, a Bisexuality Studies scholar at the University of Kansas outlines the general lack of bi, pan, or fluid screen representation in US movies and television, going on to praise “the way that Alyssa as a character defines her experience” as “really beautiful”. Jen observes that Alyssa “offers language for things that people have not been able to say before” and that “she didn’t fall into a heterosexual relationship because it was what was expected of her, or what the norm was, what the assumption was, she chose it”.
One of the most spirited and perceptive interviews comes from writer and actress Guinevere Turner who points out the irony of everyone paying attention to a movie with a lesbian character at its centre that had been written and directed by a straight man. She also contrasts the way that Kevin Smith’s career took off partly from his success at Sundance in 1994 with Clerks in a way that it did not for her as a queer screenwriter of another black and white talkie indie, Go Fish directed by Rose Troche, despite the buzz around that film when it premiered there in the same year. “Kevin built an empire and we were just some dykes” she poignantly observes about the film industry of the 90s.
Interviewed by Rodgers in his Los Angeles home—”the house that Amy built”—Smith reflects upon how “fucking pivotal” the movie was in his life; “it changed me as a filmmaker, it changed me as a professional, it changed me as a human being…It is the movie without which nothing else fucking happens.” Going back to the origins of the screenplay, Smith shares that it was conceived as a blend of wanting to include queer characters for his older gay brother Donald, the real life inspiration of the close friendship he had observed between Guinevere Turner and producer Scott Mosier, and the crucial element of his own relationship with Joey Lauren Adams who he’d met on his sophomore feature Mallrats. In writing the role of Alyssa specifically for Adams, Smith admits that he was examining and apologizing for his own behaviour during their two-year relationship. 26 years on, Chasing Amy continues to be worth revisiting for its knowing insider’s view of toxic masculinity and 90s societal conditioning about binary sexuality.
Rodgers develops a satisfying dual narrative focusing on his own evolving relationship with Chasing Amy and the film being inextricably linked to the personal lives of Smith and Adams. Wisely, Rodgers choses to speak with the actress and filmmaker both together and individually, leading to an utterly gripping and movingly candid solo interview with Adams. Admitting that she didn’t have another “bullshit Chasing Amy interview” in her, Adams takes Rodgers aback as she recalls her experience of making the movie, which meant having to relive the painful aspects of her relationship with Smith, while he found catharsis through it. More broadly, Adams speaks plainly about what it was like to be an actress in her twenties and beyond in the male-dominated world of movie sets and executives, being loomed over by figures like Harvey Weinstein. It’s such an arresting, powerful interview that it stops Rodgers in his tracks, and complicates things. Adams is proud of the film, and is grateful that she got to play the role, but points out that for her “there’s a dark side too”.
Many things can be true at once, something Chasing Chasing Amy excels in recognizing by not attempting to oversimplify or unpack everything for its audience. There’s an appealing gentle quality to Rodgers’ film which complements the abrasiveness of the original movie that was largely courtesy of Jason Lee’s gay slur-slinging character Banky. With subtle layers and complexities, this is a surprising, skillfully-crafted, deeply personal, moving and romantic film. It’s a gem that promises a bright filmmaking future for Sav Rodgers.
By James Kleinmann
Chasing Chasing Amy received its world premiere at Tribeca Festival 2023 and was the Closing Night selection of the 41st Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival.