If you’re new to lesbian films, you might notice that many of them — or, at least, the prominent ones — tend to be pretty sad. There are the secret lesbians from a time without electricity in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Ammonite (2020), the coming-of-age lesbians who undergo a lot of trauma because of homophobia and heteronormativity in Pariah (2011) and Rafiki (2018), and finally, the lesbians whose love is doomed to end in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013).
Of course, a lot of these films are great — critically acclaimed, in fact, and have made their mark on cinema. But the all-too-common themes of love followed by misery or even death has a pretty sad history in queer media in general.
The Celluloid Closet (1995), a documentary about homosexuality in the film industry throughout the 20th century, traces how the moral crackdown of the 1920s led to the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code of the US, otherwise known as The Hays Codes. The code dictated what was acceptable and morally objectionable in films between 1934 and 1968, and led to the erasure of LGBTQ+ characters and themes in many of the movies of the time.
The homosexuals who did make it to the big screen, however, tended to fall into one of few categories: homosexuals who were The Joke; homosexuals who were predators, killers, vampires, or some form of menace to society; and homosexuals whose stories acted as a cautionary tale for otherwise straight folk.
What’s more, the documentary also included a montage of homosexuals dying on screen because, of course, there was enough material to make an entire montage. At one point, we even see a lesbian dying after being crushed by a falling tree.
So after that montage, perhaps seeing Héloïse crying to the music Marianne had played for her years ago at the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t as sad as I thought it was. At least in the film, they both a) existed; and b) didn’t die.
But while I do like to indulge in tragic lesbian stories every now and then, it’s also nice to see puppy love lesbians, trashy rom-com lesbians, and action star lesbians. I want to see every kind of lesbian the way we can find straight characters across genres and borders so easily, and to celebrate their joy. And with the state of the world the way it is, I think we girls deserve some happiness, too.
The good news is, movies with lesbians who a) exist; b) don’t die; and c) walk away happy do exist — they just need a little more digging to find.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Widely credited as the first mainstream film to have a positive representation of lesbian love, Desert Hearts tells the story of a university professor divorcing her husband and finding love — and herself — with a free-spirited cowgirl. It’s a fantastic love story created by director Donna Deitch, herself a lesbian, in a time when homosexuality was still considered a disease.
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995)
The film’s clunky title tells you just about all you need to know. Directed by Maria Maggenti, it’s a cute story about two very different teen girls falling in love and the messiness that comes with navigating their socioeconomic differences and homophobia. Plus, Laurel Holloman’s Randy is modeled after Maggenti’s first girlfriend.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
The first feature-length film about Black lesbians created by a Black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman is an insightful and clever tribute to the forgotten Black and queer stars of film history. Writer-director Cheryl Dunye, who also stars in the film, playfully treads the line between fiction and non-fiction. Though the romance isn’t central to the story, Cheryl succeeds in her film project, and the ending offers up plenty of food for thought.
Before the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix (1999), the trans sisters first debuted as directors of Bound, a neo-noir crime thriller that tells the story of Violet, who seeks to escape her mafia boyfriend Caesar and run off with ex-con Corky. There’s lots of violence involving $2 million, and the creators opted to employ feminist sex educator Susie Bright to help create the lesbian sex scenes.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Jamie Babbit’s first feature film is a satirical teen comedy about Megan, a cheerleader whose parents send her to a conversion therapy camp because they suspect that she is a lesbian. She doesn’t know it herself until she meets her butchy co-camper Graham, and romance ensues. Despite its poor reviews, it’s a cult classic that even features RuPaul out of drag as Mike, an “ex-gay.”
Better Than Chocolate (1999)
What would you do if you were a lesbian who just met the woman of your dreams, and she’s moving in with you — except your conservative mother and brother are, too? This Canadian romantic comedy explores this question in the story of Maggie, her new girlfriend Kim, and her work at an LGBT bookstore.
An action-comedy parody of Charlie’s Angels, D.E.B.S. (short for Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength) is full of cheesy lines and bad special effects. It was a box office flop and the ratings aren’t very good, but there’s something irresistibly fun about the conscious camp and queer romance of it, and you can’t help but root for the paramilitary academy’s top recruit Amy and supervillain with a conscience Lucy Diamond.
Saving Face (2004)
Before writer-director Alice Wu gave us the Netflix coming-of-age drama The Half of It (2020), she first worked on this gem of a lesbian movie about Wil, a workaholic surgeon, and Vivian, a professional dancer. Though it takes some time and heavy themes to get there, the sweet ending makes you want to dance along with Wil and Vivian.
Imagine Me & You (2005)
This German-British rom-com is about Rachel, who falls in love with her florist, Luce, on her wedding day to Hector. The premise sounds messy, and it is, but Imagine Me & You provides everyone with happy endings, which is nice. Plus, it’s also interesting to see Leana Headey, who plays Luce (and more recently, Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister) make low-rise jeans look so good.
Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006)
Of all things, this British lesbian film is about curry — more specifically, a curry competition. It also revolves around the titular Nina’s quest to win this competition to save her late father’s restaurant, which she now co-owns with Lisa, a childhood friend whom she begins to have feelings for.
And Then Came Lola (2009)
Described as “a sugar rush of a lesbian movie,” And Then Came Lola is a tribute to the German classic Run Lola Run (1999). And yes, there is a lot of running, this time through San Francisco’s streets and back rooms by the talented Lola, whose work and relationship with her new girlfriend Casey are both at stake.
Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together (2011)
Roommates and best friends Jamie and Jessie are not together — or so they say. But just as Jamie is set to move from Chicago to New York for a Broadway career, the film asks: Maybe they want to be? There’s lots of romantic tension, jealousy, and fun musical numbers, making it one of the more unpredictable films on this list.
Despite Carol being produced by Harvey Weinstein (whom star Cate Blanchett has denounced), it’s good to know that Todd Haynes’ award-winning film is a faithful adaptation of a groundbreaking lesbian novel by a lesbian author. The book — and the film — offers a quietly powerful happy ending for Carol and Therese that, when shown with gorgeous cinematography and fantastic acting, makes it hard not to fall in love with the story.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Another stunning book adaptation, Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is a psychological revenge thriller with plenty of twists and turns following the lives of pickpocket Nam Sook-hee, heiress Lady Hideko, and con man Count Fujiwara. I don’t think there are enough adjectives to describe just how good this film is, so if you haven’t watched it, please do.
The Feels (2017)
At their bachelorette party, soon-to-be-wives Andi and Lu celebrate with their friends in a woodsy cabin. Things are fun, though a little awkward, until an intoxicated Lu admits that she’s never had an orgasm before, which shocks everyone, but especially Andi. Throughout the film, the friends reflect on desire, trust, and their first orgasms.
Signature Move (2017)
The film’s producer, writer, and star Fawzia Mirza might be familiar if you’ve seen Jamie and Jessie are Not Together, where she plays Jamie’s girlfriend Rhonda. But this time around, Mirza is Zaynab, a Pakistani Muslim lesbian living with her conservative mother and who falls for the outspoken Alma. So how does she deal with the stress of dating while in the closet? Through Lucha-style wrestling, of course.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
Adapted from a coming-of-age teen novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows the titular Cameron when she is sent to a gay conversion camp. The premise might make it hard to watch for some, as it tackles emotional abuse and trauma, but director Desiree Akhavan, a bisexual woman of color, does so with remarkable nuance and gentleness — making it an empowering story about identity, defiance, and found family.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut follows geeky best friends Molly and Amy as they decide to let loose for the first (and final) time before graduating from high school to chase after their respective crushes. Molly likes a boy named Nick, and Amy likes a girl named Ryan. The film’s take on high school and coming-of-age for lesbians is a refreshing, hilarious, and sweet reminder that nobody is ever a stereotype.
Kajillionaire is a crime comedy-drama that is as wonderfully unpredictable as it is heartfelt and intentional. The unique story follows a hilariously bad petty crime family: Robert, Theresa, and their more-of-an-accomplice-than-daughter Old Dolio. When Robert and Theresa invite Melanie to join their schemes, Old Dolio is changed forever.
Ellie and Abbie (And Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (2020)
The premise of this delightfully crafted Australian rom-com is sweet. When Ellie comes out to her mother, her deceased lesbian aunt Tara suddenly appears to be a fairy godmother to guide her through the complexities of first lesbian love. In truth, the film revolves around two love stories: the budding romance between high schoolers Ellie and Abbie, and the intergenerational love between today’s LGBTQ+ community and our queer forebears.
Set during World War II, Alice’s quiet, sequestered life is disrupted when an evacuee from the London Blitz, Frank, is entrusted to her care. The actual lesbian romance, which we mostly see in bright, dreamlike flashbacks, is a bit understated, but its warmth drums in every beat of Gemma Arterton’s performance, and in her character’s unexpected bond with Frank.
Happiest Season (2020)
Directed by Clea DuVall, who plays the butch lesbian Graham in But I’m a Cheerleader, this Christmas film follows happy couple, Abby and Harper, as they decide to celebrate the holidays with Harper’s family. The problem is, her conservative parents have no idea she’s a lesbian.
It takes a while to get to their happy ending, with more than a few cheesy Christmas clichés, but the film offers a thoroughly entertaining experience — especially with Aubrey Plaza stealing the show. Plus, fans of the film would be happy to know that a sequel is in the works.
Do you have a favorite happy lesbian film? Sound off in the comments!