(Spoiler warning for major plot points and ending. Trigger warning for mentions of homophobia, transphobia, and assault.)
Better Than Chocolate (1999) isn’t perfect, but it sure has charm! The characters are wonderful. Some took longer to grow on me than others, but ultimately they’re all fairly compelling! I especially appreciate how a select few of them help those around them to grow. The biggest example of this is between Judy (Peter Outerbridge) and Lila. At the start of the narrative, Lila is hands down the most irritating out of the cast. She's obnoxious, overbearing, and judgemental of Maggie before she even learns she's gay.
However, Judy massively aids in Lila’s arc and helps her to become accepting of her daughter, and, in general, broaden her outlook. Judy is a transgender woman, which Lila is clueless about for the majority of the runtime. They become friends and are supportive of one another, sharing many moments in which they hype each other up as strong women! Towards the end when Judy’s trans identity is revealed, it takes Lila a moment to process as she says she “needs a drink”. Ultimately, she doesn’t let this information deter her from Judy, which I couldn’t imagine her initial character doing. However, they bonded a lot over the course of the film quite genuinely. While it’s an initial shock, it doesn’t matter to Lila because that’s her friend. The companionship’s impact on Lila was absolutely crucial to her eventual acceptance of Maddie; she wouldn’t have grown to be open otherwise.
In general, Judy was my favorite character! She is very sweet and compassionate to those who need it, motherly almost. But when the situation calls for it, she can be assertive and stand up for herself! She has this one musical number at the club she and the other gay characters frequent where she proclaims she is “not a fucking drag queen” in a tongue-in-cheek manner. She radiates confidence in the scene, and right after the performance is confronted by another woman in the restroom. The woman agonizingly tells her she’s in the wrong bathroom, but Judy firmly pushes back that no, she’s not. The lady then tells her to get out, prompting Judy to answer “make me," which gets her a drink thrown in her face. At this moment, she gets assaulted until Maggie and Kim go into the restroom and interfere. Maggie helps Judy up, while Kim wrangles the woman who is still screeching about how Judy “isn’t a woman”. Maggie yells “She is a woman, and she’s our friend!” while Kim forces an apology out of her, getting her to call Judy “ma'am” in the process. That was so satisfying; it truly felt like justice.
In the second instance of Judy standing up for herself, she and Lila see Maggie being harassed by Skinheads. They both rush in to protect her. Initially wanting to be peaceful, Judy puts herself in front of Lila and asks them to leave. They then punch her directly in the face, but she strikes back! This is what gets them to run off. The only critique I have for her character is a detail in Better Than Chocolate’s production as opposed to the actual story. I wish that Judy was played by someone who’s actually trans. I was surprised to find out the actor that plays Judy didn’t actually identify as trans. Considering she is such a good representation that's unharmful, (jokes aren’t made at her expense, she’s treated like a person, etc.) I can let it slide, but still. In that sense, I'm reminded of Boys Don't Cry, a story about a real trans man named Brandon Teena. Just like in Better Than Chocolate, the representation of a trans person is done well, but it would be preferable to have someone who is actually trans playing the role. Perhaps that’s asking too much of 1999, (coincidently, when both films came out!) as we weren’t as socially conscious at the time.
While we don't get a whole in-depth analysis on each character in Better Than Chocolate, some of them are more complex than they appear. Take the aforementioned Lila, as well as Tony (Tony Nappo). He is particularly confusing because while Tony isn't as discriminatory as the skinheads we're shown, he's not innocent either. There are scenes where he's cordial with the gay characters and almost comes off as an ally. In other moments he asserts heteronormativity. The main instance that comes to mind is when he stops Maggie and Kim from showing PDA in his cafe. When questioned about the double standard as he was affectionate with a woman in the same space, he says it’s “different." He even throws around slurs carelessly. It alludes to more nuance than you'd originally think about the character.
I also found the commentary on censorship topical. Maggie works at a bookstore, and a prominent plot thread is how many of the texts are being withheld from their shelves under the guise of censorship. She combats this reoccurring issue through artistic protest. At first, she freezes a block of books in ice and explains how it’s meant to represent the restricted material. Further on, this is replaced with her naked form with a sign saying “obscene lesbian” over her breasts and another one saying “pervert” over her groin. Not for the first time in the movie, skinheads spot her in the window and start harassing her by hitting the glass and making disturbing comments. Yet, she holds her ground and hardly flinches through this. It's great because she’s not just standing up to the intense in-your-face racism of the harassers. She's also simultaneously standing up to casual bigotry the border facility displays on a more systematic scale. That's clever subtext!
An aspect that didn't sit right with me in Better Than Chocolate was how the main couple, Maggie and Kim, weren't all that compelling. Yeah, they had some cute moments. What I found off-putting was how often the word “love” was thrown around in regards to their relationship. Even outside of themselves, other characters make a note of how much in “love” they are. They’ve known each other for roughly a week. This is what makes the pressure for Maggie to come out to her mom, and Kim’s outbreak so frustrating! From the start of the movie, Maggie is urged to tell her mother that she's a lesbian. I fully understand her hesitancy. Ideally, every parent would be instantly accepting of their child. Unfortunately, that's not the reality we live in. Even more so, I would get why she wouldn't want to come out for someone she's known for so little time! Sure, it’s natural and even realistic for Kim to feel hurt that Maggie didn’t initially admit to her mom that they had feelings for each other. Still, I don’t think the level of aggression she showed was warranted. She literally yelled “Well fuck you,” and stormed off. I feel like that’s an extreme reaction given the circumstances.
The last detail I'll comment on is it felt uncomfortable to watch the interactions between Paul and Carla (Marya Delver). There’s a significant age gap between the two. Maggie even specifically calls this out in one scene. However, the narrative mostly brushes over it like it’s not all that big of a concern. It’s generally uncomfortable to watch -- especially as the physicality escalates the more they’re on screen together.
On a more technical dissection, some scenes feel abrupt. One of the biggest examples of this is the sex scene between Maggie and Kim early in the flick. Unexpectedly, they pull out a tarp and start painting on each other, engaging in intimacy. There's nothing inherently wrong with this moment, but it feels out of the blue as they didn’t even discuss it beforehand. On my first viewing, I didn’t know what to make of it; it felt out of place.
As an Incluvie rating, I give Better Than Chocolate a 5/5! The majority of characters are gay, and their portrayal of a trans character was particularly positive! I loved the supporting themes of standing your ground for your identity!
As an all-around movie rating, I give Better Than Chocolate 4/5! It’s a compelling story with intriguing characters! However, some of the scenes feel sudden and come out of nowhere. The main romance feels generic at times and, at worst, forced. Not to mention I didn’t like the under-aged Paul hooking up with Carla.