FILM / Girl trouble: Adam-Mars Jones on Go Fish, Rose Troche's 'puppy-dog earnest', low-budget tale of twentysomething lesbian love in Chicago

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As a first film made in black-and-white and dealing with sexual relationships of a sort neglected or distorted by cinema generally, Go Fish has some claim to being the lesbian She's Gotta Have It, except that it's so endearingly tentative. She'd Really Quite Like to Have It, If She Met the Right Woman, more like. While Queer Cinema as practised by men (Tom Karlin, Gregg Araki) routinely explores and seeks to reclaim negative images - transgression, irresponsibility, rage - Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner, the women responsible for Go Fish, focus on areas a lot less lurid: awkwardness, embarrassment, finding in the middle of a date that your fingernails are long and raggedy, not knowing what kind of haircut expresses your sexuality or even halfway suits you.

Go Fish faces two ways. On the one hand, it aspires to an ethic of separatist purity, imagining a world made up of gay women, which in practical terms has meant accepting male money and male help only when there was no alternative. On the other, however, it tries to makes no assumptions about lesbian lives, and to be open-minded about the most basic questions. Some sequences of Go Fish are like helpful insets in a magazine article designed for a general readership: Did you know? - Playing the field can be fun, but there's nothing wrong with monogamy if it suits you - You can sleep with a man once in a while and still be a dyke, if you want to be - Getting a crewcut doesn't make you a different person in bed, unless you want it to. The film is ingenuous, disarming and occasionally very wooden.

The spontaneously and navely doctrinaire parts of Go Fish are stylistically distinct. There's a lot of surprisingly successful montage, often used to accompany the main characters' journal entries read in voice- over, weaving together images of water, hands, lights, candles, dictionary pages and a spinning top into a satisfying poetic texture. Rose Troche is credited as the film's director, co- writer, co-producer and editor, and it is in the last category that so far she shows most accomplishment. A sequence involving various women trying on a wedding dress, while Max (Guinevere Turner) wonders in her journal what it would be like to be straight, manages to preserve on the level of imagery the ambiguity that the screenplay tries so hard to dissipate or domesticate.

The narrative, meanwhile, recounts the slow-burn romance of Max and Ely (V S Brodie), to whom she is at first sight so little attracted as to use that notorious term of objectifying disparagement, ugly. Max hasn't had sex for 10 months and doesn't enjoy bed-hopping, while Ely has a girlfriend in Seattle, very far from Chicago, who may only be an excuse for not seeing anyone else. The two of them are set up on a date, go to a movie, argue awkwardly about it, awkwardly kiss, and awkwardly break off when the phone rings. It's Seattle calling.

The human awkwardness of this scene, though, has been ruined in advance by the crashing awkwardness of the discussion of the unnamed movie that the women have just seen. Their date is hijacked by dialectic. Does a gay film-maker have an obligation to represent all aspects of an under-represented community? Is the notion of a personal vision, being true to your individual experience, anything more than a cop out in these circumstances? If only the characters had gone to an art gallery and discussed flower-eroticism in Georgia O'Keeffe, anything but this cringe-making moment of Exploring the Options for a Minority Cinema. The best thing to be said about this element of Go Fish is that audiences will be more embarrassed for the film, somehow, than by it.

The dropped brick of unmediated politics is all the more crashing because the film contains sequences designed to integrate characters and issues more smoothly. Every now and then, there is a sort of chorus scene, with four heads nestling against each other in various democratic arrangement and giving their views on how things are going, or should go, between Max and Ely. Two of the women in these scenes are a couple, and so might be expected to propagandise for commitment, but another, Daria (Anastasia Sharp), is unattached, almost compulsively so, and the fourth member of the quartet is whoever Daria happens to be with at the time - always someone new.

This is sisterhood viewed positively, but there is also a scene of oppressive peer pressure, where Daria is fiercely criticised for sleeping with a man. Arguments for and against her action are rehearsed more or less equally, but the way the sequence is filmed, as a sort of ideological lynching, makes it clear that the film-makers are not unduly enamoured of political correctness. The only problem is that Daria isn't one of the central characters, so that once again Go Fish seems to have an appetite for issues beyond what its story requires or can comfortably hold.

Still, even when it is earnest, the film is attractively, puppy-dog earnest, urgently rehearsing sexual politics as if the subject were quite new and had no history. Women of an older generation may find it disconcerting that Go Fish tries so hard to keep lesbian options open while at the same time assuming that gay women are urban twentysomethings more or less by definition.

Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote the script and also co-produced, makes a nice job of the character of Max. Without being stridently femmy, Max knows that she's a dyke who doesn't 'look like one', and that this is both a trump card and something that makes her seem more like a groupie than a true sister.

V S Brodie also seems to grow into the role of Ely, despite never quite finding a hairstyle that suits her. The scene of her haircut (performed by someone who's getting their diploma any moment now) may be the only make-over in the movies where somebody's looks are completely transformed without being either ruined or improved. Long-haired, Ely looks hippyish and horsey, crewcut she is gangling and uncertain of chin. But then the whole sweet unrevolutionary drift of Go Fish is that however different you are from others, you can't be different from yourself.

(Photograph omitted)