Why I Love… #140: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

Year: 1997

Director: David Mirkin

Stars: Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, Janeane Garofalo

Seemingly destined to become a cult title from its very release, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion remains a kooky delight nearly 25 years later, and high-key one of the best (and funniest) movies about friendship to come out of the ’90s.

Trapped in a kind of arrested development that has lasted 10 years, Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) live together in a beachfront Los Angeles apartment like sorority sisters, as close as they ever were back on the playground. Their dynamic has remained largely unchanged since their high school days. Thanks to scoliosis, Michele spent those years in a restrictive brace, while Romy rocked some severe ’80s shoulder pads. In truth, they were outcasts, mocked by their peers, yet seeming blissfully unaware of their unpopularity. Their taste in clothes may have changed, and Michele may have loosed herself from that troublesome brace, but otherwise it is like no time has passed at all.

Their very naivety makes up a big part of the movie’s charm, celebrating a kind of ring-fenced love and confidence that sustains both of them and, in fact, makes the snide comments and deeds of their detractors immaterial. So long as they have each other, they’re invulnerable to emotional harm. Each is the other’s shield.

Filling out questionnaires for their 10 year high school reunion back in Tuscon, the pair become paranoid about their relative lack of achievement. Neither have married, Romy is a cashier and Michele is unemployed. In an effort to impress their former schoolmates, the duo decide to lose weight and find boyfriends. When they fail at both, they settle for inventing more aspirational back stories for themselves. In the process, Romy and Michele mocks the itinerary of demands that society at large expects of the individual in order to be gauged a ‘success’. None of the prerequisites on their list are required. Nobody needs to be impressed. By itemising these expectations Romy and Michele in fact rejects them (it’s no coincidence that the school ‘bitches’ are all pregnant when we get to the reunion itself; presented here like a line of indoctrinated – and unsatisfied – clones). The message by the end of the film is clear; stay true to yourself and don’t bow to imagined or imposed societal pressures.

With this in mind, it’s of little surprise that the film has become thought of as something of a queer classic. Romy and Michele’s interests are clearly heterosexual… but not restrictively. In an early scene in which they dance together in a club, they openly and casually discuss the possibility of sleeping together, just to check if they are lesbians, eventually deciding to revisit the idea if they’re still single at 30. There’s a mix of the formal and casual in how these two friends converse that generates much of the film’s humour.

When Romy tries to borrow a flash car from her co-worker Ramon (Jacob Vargas), the two of them simulate sex in his office with the blinds drawn so that Ramon’s colleagues will believe he is a stud. Not only is this fitting for the continuing theme of façade and false representation, it also keeps Romy from consummating a hetero sexual coupling (and also from prostituting herself). But the real treat is on the other side of the glass; as Ramon’s male coworkers listen in, one fondles another’s arm and shirt buttons are opened as the men grow lusty, projecting their desires – however subliminally – onto one another. It’s underplayed, but unmistakable.

Then there’s the supporting cast, which prominently includes gay icons; Alan Cumming as ultra-successful Sandy Frink, and comic maestro Janeane Garofalo as the foul-mouthed and sardonic Heather Mooney. On top of that, an ongoing association between Romy and Michele with Mary and Rhoda – characters from The Mary Tyler Moore Show; absolutely part of the kitsch canon – seals the deal. At the same time, the film makes visual references linking the central duo to the main characters from Thelma & Louise, a then-recent hit that had already been embraced as similarly queer-coded.

When the aforementioned Sandy swoops into the reunion to sweep Michele off her feet, requesting a dance, Michele replies, “Only if Romy can dance with us”. The three of them take to the dancefloor for an hilariously choreographed display to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s all-time banger “Time After Time”. What ensues could be read as a veritable ballet of bisexuality.

RMHR

But what if we take sexual attraction out of the equation? It’s easily done. Romy and Michele also works – and in fact to my mind works better – as a celebration of asexuality, of non-romantic love, and the aforementioned dance is the apex of joy in this regard. More-so than romantic desires, the film is a shimmering embracement of the fulfilling pleasures of platonic friendship. Of finding your people and loving them. Of being in sync with them, even if others gawp and connive behind your backs.

Kudrow and Sorvino’s deadpan performances splice ‘valley girl’ ditz with a kind of offbeat, quasi-autistic approach to interaction. I love them. Their characters are so attuned to one another’s wavelengths that their shorthand exchanges register as both funny and touching. Sure, their codependency is suggestive of a romantic couple and, when they fall out mid-film, the overarching storyline of their own inevitable reunion matches the standard beats of the rom-com, but this is about the solace of friendship. The value of it. Something which Romy and Michele ultimately prices much higher than any of the lesser romantic notions that haunt the peripheries. Romy’s school crush Billy Christiansen (Vincent Ventresca) turns out to be quite the grotesque – perhaps even more tethered to his high school years than either Romy or Michele – and he’s quickly discarded and shuffled into the fringes of the story. Similarly, Michele’s reunion with Sandy is maxed-out during the aforementioned three-way dance, in which Romy is explicitly present and involved. Sisters before misters, always.

While Romy and Michele takes its share of potshots at consumerism in Western society (all those unnecessary fad diets; Michele’s disastrous attempt at working retail), it isn’t afraid of openly celebrating materialistic pleasures, also.

Romy Michele

While openly lambasting the outdated styles of the ’80s through it’s various high school flashbacks, Romy and Michele also stands as a glorious love letter to the more outré fashion sensibilities of the ’90s. The duo’s wardrobe choices throughout the film are fabulous, splicing chic and tacky, slutty and sophisticated… often all in the same outfit. Their respective hair and make-up jobs maintain this trend also. This is underlined in the film’s riotous third act, when the two have re-bonded and come marching back into the reunion dressed in their own complimentary and signature style; approved by their class’ very own Vogue fashion editor (Elaine Hendrix) no less.

Here the film knits together its twin concerns of looking and feeling good; absolutely understanding that one engenders the other. It’s a stylish comedy about style. About using style to uplift and motivate one’s self, and about generating a cyclical sense of confidence this same way. And while director David Mirkin shoots relatively plainly, his movie is not without panache. Comedy is perhaps the genre in which a director is most urged to make themselves ‘invisible’, deferring to a set of formal traditions that go back to the beginning of cinema. Romy and Michele boasts some beautiful touches in its production design to match those ‘extra’ wardrobe choices, and Mirkin feathers in a few neat transitions, also (note how we move from the club to Romy’s day job).

This sense of all-around completeness – no matter how ‘invisible’ – bolsters the film at large. Romy and Michele looks as effortlessly made as its protagonists are effortlessly enjoyable. A ‘dumb’ comedy that’s all the more gratifying for how sneakily intelligent and knowing it is. Re-watches become, simply, a pleasure.

Now, get me another daiquiri!

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