this coming-of-age lesbian love story from the 90s is a forgotten gem
20 years after it was released, 'All Over Me' still packs an emotional punch. Here’s why you should watch it now.
All Over Me is a woefully slept-on 90s movie. A lesbian love story. An NYC-set coming-of-ager. A riot grrrl movie. Watching it 20 years after it was released, it feels so out-of-the-blue brilliant you wonder why it's not talked about in the same breath as Kids or The Basketball Diaries.
"In a world that expects you to fit in, sometimes you have to stand out" says the tagline. Ellen and Claude are two 15-year-old girls who live on opposite sides of a neighbourhood park in Hell's Kitchen. They're best friends. They're starting a band. But when Ellen meets Mark, a dumb drug dealer with the slightest hint of a mullet, a gulf emerges between the two friends, their lives drifting in different directions. Soon — who has a massive crush on Ellen — discovers her true self and how important it is to be that person without apology.
Director Alex Sichel received a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation to make a film about the riot grrrl scene. It was, according to production notes, to be set in the scene and "fuse the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock with in-your-face feminism." But when the director's sister Sylvia, a playwright, stepped in as writer, it became less about the scene and more about the relationship between Ellen and Claude. Because All Over Me celebrates its 20th birthday this month, and because I clearly haven't sold the movie enough yet, here's some reasons why it's the ultimate riot grrrl movie of the 90s.
It has "girls to the front" written all over it...
Kathleen Hanna isn't mentioned by name, but her "girls to the front" mantra is written all over the movie. From its opening credits - "A Sichel sisters film" - to its foregrounding of female friendship and female sexuality, this is a movie that celebrates girlhood in all its complexity. Unlike the majority of teen girl movies, there's no makeover scene, no shop-till-we-drop mall scene, no singing Madonna into a hairbrush scene. Yet it has that fun, zero-fucks-given riot grrrl attitude. Alex Sichel knew the scene, too, having shot Jill Reiter's 1994 In Search of Margo-Go, starring Kathleen Hanna - a film that, FYI, was recently unearthed and described as a lost riot grrrl gem.
The soundtrack is stuffed full of riot grrrl bangers...
There's no way you're gonna watch this movie and not immediately google the soundtrack afterwards. Naturally it features bands generally associated with the riot grrrl movement; Babes in Toyland and Sleater-Kinney, but also bands that aren't. There's a whole slew of female-fronted indie bands, like Kim Deal's post-Pixies project The Amps, and Mary Timony's Helium. The best use of a single song in the movie, though, is when Claude whips out a Patti Smith CD. She plays Pissing in a River and proceeds to dance like a grunge flower child, before she's overwhelmed by the song's intensity. The entire soundtrack ultimately reads like a who's-who of 90s badass girl bands.
Its bubblegum colour palette is the perfect antidote to the 90s grunge aesthetic...
All Over Me splashes bubblegum pinks and blues all over the frame. Hairdos and T-shirts pop out at you: Lucy's bright pink hair in pigtails, Ellen's oh-so-90s contrast-collar tees. The fashion has that decade-defining blend of skate and punk typified by Kim Gordon's X-Girl label. It's also the perfect antidote to the male-dominated grunge aesthetic, with its autumnal flannel shirts, stonewashed tees, and earthy workwear worn by dudes who've seen Pearl Jam live at least three times. If riot grrrl taught us anything it's that you can wear eye-popping colours and still be as angsty as Kurt Cobain.
A cast including Tara Subkoff, Alison Folland, and Leisha Hailey...
It's impossible to tear your eyes away from the leads. First, Tara Subkoff as Ellen, the fashion designer, conceptual artist, and actress dubbed an "It-girl" of the late 90s, who was often compared to Rosanna Arquette. And opposite her, Alison Folland as Claude, who played a similarly tortured teen in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. Here she manages to capture the dreamy aimlessness of youth with as little as a glance through her fringe, effortlessly burrowing into the emotional heart of the character. To top it off, Leisha Hailey from The Murmurs (a female pop duo who also feature on the soundtrack) plays Lucy, the pink-haired guitarist who crushes on Claude. All three actresses make the girls they're playing feel freakishly real, as though their lives extend beyond the frame.
Early critics drew comparisons to Kids for its depiction of NYC youth in the 90s...
Shot on location in Manhattan, All Over Me is set in a Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood that, back then, was still legit tough. Claude and Ellen hang out on the stoop of their brownstone, like Casper and Telly in Kids. Larry Clark's film was released two years before Sichel's and critics were quick to draw a line between the two. Both portray NYC street kids, both are set during a sweaty summer, both explore teenage sexuality and homophobia -- albeit fleetingly in the case of Clark's movie. To be clear, I'm not saying anyone who loved Kids will love this, but it will make you nostalgic for that same NYC, populated by skaters in hilariously oversized jeans.
Its female-centered story zeroes in on the universal truths of youth..
Whether you're a boy, girl, gay, straight, whatever - this is a coming-of-age movie most teens will nod their heads to in a way that says, "Yep, that's true". Mainly because it zeroes in on small details that feel so real: Ellen and Claude playing off-key guitar in Claude's messy bedroom; Ellen and Claude sharing a bed and Ellen complaining about having the spins from drinking; Ellen telling Claude about losing her virginity and Claude saying, "I wish you could show me"; Ellen and Claude lying down on the pavement together because Ellen is that hungover. The movie totally nails these feelings we've all felt. Even two decades later, it still packs an emotional punch.
Text Oliver Lunn