'Ahead of the Curve': Film Review

Ahead of the Curve Still 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Ahead of the Curve
Zippy, insightful and deeply moving.

'Curve,' the world's best-selling lesbian magazine, and its singular founder get the big-screen treatment in this doc from Jen Rainin.

The world's best-selling lesbian magazine was founded by a 23-year-old who, not too long before that, had been living in her car after being outed by her then-husband to her disapproving family. To fund the unproven venture, Franco Stevens applied for a bunch of credit cards, then took the borrowed money to the race track. She kept winning, and that's how Deneuve — now Curve — was born.

Ahead of the Curve — about the magazine's providential rise in the '90s and its uncertain future today — was the only feature to enjoy an in-person event at this year's Frameline, San Francisco's LGBTQ film festival. (The world premiere took place at a local drive-in theater.) It's easy to see why Frameline leaders chose this documentary for the distinction: First-time director Jen Rainin's portrait of Stevens, Curve's achievements and blindspots, lesbian progress during the Clinton era and the uneasiness with the "lesbian" label among many queer women today is accomplished, resonant and deeply moving.

Rainin is also Stevens' wife, which might account for the occasional stiffness in the interviews and the curious glossing over of the Curve founder's early life. (Stevens' reconciliation with her mother after her post-closet rejection is also given notably cursory treatment.) One gets the sense that the documentary's subject isn't entirely comfortable occupying the center of attention, despite being a charming and eloquent spokeswoman for gay rights and lesbian visibility in her early adulthood, as we see in clips from — of all things — an episode of a Geraldo Rivera talk show dedicated to "power dykes."

There, Stevens appears in close-cropped hair, a dark suit and heavy but feature-softening makeup, looking every bit the part created for her by Rivera. But in many of the photos and home-video footage from the era, she's in a sweatshirt and baggy jeans, or a plain white t-shirt, or a sporty bikini, her freckles emphasizing her youth. And although those images weren't in the pages of Deneuve/Curve, they highlight what was so important about the magazine: making a group of women that male-dominated media had little use for (except to be framed as threats or cautionary tales) not only visible, but aspirational. The pictures within Deneuve and Curve weren't out of reach, but they are indisputably beautiful.

Ahead of the Curve may be most compelling as a time machine, taking us back to a epoch — less than 30 years ago — when it was earth-shattering news that k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge weren't straight. (A 1996 clip, in which the still-technically-closeted Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell joke about coming out as "Lebanese" to each other, is another artifact of the era.) Based in San Francisco, where gay liberation had long been woven into the fabric of the city, Stevens thought she was just filling a void in queer women's culture. She didn't anticipate that her magazine would be a lifeline, with readers from all over the country regularly calling the office — really, her apartment — just to hear the voice of another lesbian.

Times have thankfully changed. The documentary finds Stevens at a kind of crossroads, unclear what Curve — which she no longer oversees, following a freak accident that left her disabled and in chronic pain — can offer a younger generation that no longer buys magazines and finds the term "lesbian" unduly restrictive. That makes Ahead of the Curve a fitting companion piece to Netflix's recent Circus of Books, another documentary that pays tribute to an oasis of gay community that ultimately fell victim to the LGBTQ movement's success.

Stevens is clearly energized by the young queer people leading the charge — she was one of them, once — but she, too, seems unsure what Curve should be now. For all her verve, she approaches the quandary more as a servant than a leader of the cause, willing to provide whatever's needed. The documentary's gently elegiac tone stretches into the scenes where she visits some of her old haunts in the Castro (San Francisco's gay neighborhood), where many of her formative locales have been supplanted by new businesses. (As someone endlessly fascinated by San Francisco history, I'd have loved a coda on the city's disappearing lesbian scene, especially since Stevens and Rainin now live in Oakland. Rather, we get an obligatory reminder that, since 2016, many LGBTQ political milestones have been rolled back.)

Like its titular magazine, Ahead of the Curve is by no means flashy, but it's a handsome production that zips along (thanks to editor Jessica Congdon) and maintains an earned sense of celebration and cheer. There's even a bit of suspense surrounding the question of the magazine's name change, which was forced on Stevens by a lawsuit from Catherine Deneuve. Staff remain convinced that the French actress should've been flattered by the presumed homage — though none can say whether the homage was intentional or not.

That Stevens has been able to cultivate a sense of mystique around her publication's name after all these years is a perfect summary of who she is: She gave her people what they wanted, including a bit of fun, sensuality and mystery.

Venue: Frameline Film Festival

Production company: Frankly Speaking Films

Director: Jen Rainin

Co-director: Rivkah Beth Medow

Producer: Rivkah Beth Medow

Executive producer: Lindsey Dryden, Marga Gomez, Tracy Lords, Kiyomi McCloskey

Director of photography: Svetlana Cvetko

Editor: Jessica Congdon

Composer: Meshell Ndegeocello

97 minutes