Sometimes you go to a movie festival screening not knowing quite what to expect, you’re compelled by the premise, but it could really go either way — and then it turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Good Kisser is one such movie. It is well written, well acted, well shot, and a Seattle production to boot: last night was its world premiere screening, at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Given that it’s about a lesbian couple, Jenna and Kate (Kari Alison Hodge and Rachel Paulson, respectively — the latter being, incidentally, the younger sister of Sarah Paulson), engaging in a first-time hookup with a third woman, Mia (Julia Eringer), it makes all the difference that it was written and directed by a woman, Wendy Jo Carlton. Presumably there are some few men out there who could have made a decent movie about this, being open to enough input from female cast and crew, but none could pull it off with Carlton’s specific brand of delicate sensitivity.
To be sure, that premise alone doesn’t necessarily hold much promise: “three women with varying degrees of nervousness attempt to get it on.” It sounds like a clichéd porn premise intended for the straight male gaze. Good Kisser could not be further away from that, although it certainly works for all audiences open to the story it’s trying to tell. And it is a story, an absorbing one at that, hooking you into the specific motivations of each separate character.
Indeed, much of the story unfolds like a one-act play, once Jenna and Kate arrive at the home of Mia, all set for, as Jenna noted earlier to a ride share driver, “a date with another woman.” The dialogue is written so well that it would indeed work as a stage play without really having to change anything, at least not the majority of the film set inside the house, where the three woman cautiously make small talk, work their way through wine and tequila, play a couple of ice breaker games I actually thought would be fun to play myself, and yes, eventually wind up in bed.
There are, soon enough, minor twists and turns as we learn more about these characters, extrapolated from what is clear from the beginning: Mia is free spirited and down to go with the flow no matter what happens; it is clear almost immediately that Kate is more into Mia than a one-night fling might suggest and has ulterior motives; Jenna is by far the most tentative and prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
Maybe 80% of the run time, which runs at a brisk 80 minutes that feels totally appropriate for a straightforward story with such a small cast. Otherwise there are only two other cast members: the ride share driver (Courtney McCullough), and Clark, the writer who lives in the grandmother apartment out back (Carter Rodriquez). Both characters serve a specific purpose, although honestly Yuka the driver does so in a slightly more natural way. Carter keeps hanging out in the backyard with his dog, often chatting with Jenna when she goes out for fresh air, and although he makes it clear he knows exactly what’s going down, everyone is very chill about it. I liked the way Yuka fit into the story a lot better.
Still, it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes into Good Kisser that I found myself thinking about how impressively written the dialogue was, not to mention the production values, particularly how well shot and beautifully lit the three women consistently were. This production design is solid by any standard, but by independent, local production standards, it’s kind of off the charts. Nobody working on this film was an amateur. It’s rare that pretty much every aspect of a movie’s production has the same level of competence, no matter who is making it, considering what a collaborative effort filmmaking is. Still, that consistency is probably more credit to the director than anyone.
And yes, it does get to a point of some amount of sex scenes, which are also very well shot, sensual rather than titillating, although I can imagine plenty of lesbians in particular will find it very hot. The sex stuff in particular is shot, and edited, in a measured, almost half-dreamy manner, gentle clips of limbs caressing and removing articles of clothing, or close-ups of wet skin, a neck or a wrist, where ice has been swiped.
Virtually any story must have some kind of conflict that must be overcome or accepted, and Good Kisser takes so much of its time getting there, I began to wonder if it would even happen. It does, but it’s gentle and subtle in the telling of it. You’ll find no bona fide drama here, and it works. Good Kisser might be the most “chill” movie I see all year. It’s basically “Netflix and Chill” without any Netflix. The characters still express feeling and emotions; they just do it in more relaxed and controlled ways than typically found at the movies. Even Jenna’s occasional anxiety is presented with a dignified respect. I guess you could call this a meditation on open relationships, with an emphasis on the meditation part. I left the theatre both impressed and relaxed.