Image: Amazon Prime
Warning: Contains spoilers.
It can sometimes seem as if queer stories in cinema are ticking a box. A one-size-fits-all approach that either others the queer experience onto supporting characters (see Billy Elliot et al.), or assumes that queer experiences are a coalescencent blob and largely the same. While improving – despite being a by-the-numbers flick, there’s no denial Love, Simon was a watershed moment – there’s still a long way to go. A GLAAD survey in 2017 found that most LGBTQ characters in cinema are either marginalised, invisible, or punchlines. Point being, queer characters rarely get the chance to be protagonists of their own stories, and when they are, they’re often clichéd. But that’s where Dating Amber comes in.
Released last month on Amazon Prime and set in 1995 Ireland shortly before the referendum that legalised divorce, Dating Amber follows two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea, AKA evil Jamie from Normal People) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple of hide their sexualities and put an end to the homophobic bullying their classmates subject them to, becoming each other’s beards (the film’s original title). It’s a sweet and ultimately optimistic – if also tender and emotional – coming of age dramedy that puts authentic, nuanced queer experiences front and centre.
Rather than the protagonists moving step-in-step with one another, they’re at entirely different stages of their journeys and want entirely different things in life. Alongside one another, we see the stories of both a gay man and a lesbian as true co-protagonists. No longer have they been cubby-holed apart. Eddie may seem more of an audience surrogate, but it’s as much Amber’s story as it is his.
Eddie’s arc is all about coming to terms with his own sexuality. For most of the film, he’s in complete denial. While Amber wants to go out with Eddie to hide from the world, he wants to go out with her to hide from himself, trying to convince himself their relationship could actually be for real, something he tries to force even more later on when he goes into crisis after kissing a boy. He’s tried to fill his life with macho things that he’s convinced will make him more of a man; he says he wants to join the army so he can follow in the footsteps of his father, and while it’s true he’s also not the smartest and so the only viable future he can see is to join the army in a military town – as director David Freyne tells the Film Ireland podcast, a lot of kids just simply didn’t have the options to do anything else – it’s clear that Eddie thinks the army will straighten him out, both in terms of his future prospects and his sexuality.
“There’s nothing gay about my room!” he protests to Amber after she sees it for the first time, “Those are bullet shells. Bullets.” To Eddie to be a man is not to be gay, and it’s his own internalised homophobia that’s the obstacle in his story, more than the bullying he receives at school. When Amber and Eddie go to Dublin, it’s the only time Eddie lets his urges get the better of him – hugging a drag queen in a rather ethereal sequence, making out with a boy in a gay club – because it’s a place where he isn’t known, and so he isn’t himself. Dublin Eddie being gay doesn’t mean small-town home Eddie is gay.
Amber on the other hand is completely at one with her sexuality. Unlike Eddie, she doesn’t seem particularly traumatised by it – her trauma seems to come instead from her father’s recent suicide. While admittedly a bleak subject, this is also somewhat refreshing; a queer character not entirely defined by their queerness. While Eddie needs this relationship to lie to himself, for Amber the relationship is entirely about lying to the outside world – not out of shame however, just out of a want to keep her head down until she can escape.
Amber’s arc is one of embracing her sexuality: she falls in love with a girl she meets in Dublin, and breaks off her and Eddie’s facade so that she can be true to the world, rather than true to herself. Seeing her falling in love is incredibly welcome to see on screen. There’s no metaphorical bogeyman that’s about to jump out and ruin this for her, but rather a sweet, hopeful montage – and a scene of lesbian sex that doesn’t fetishise it, but plays it for its intimacy.
There’s no doubt that Eddie’s experience of queerness is authentic – as someone who took a long time to admit to my adolescent self that I was gay, so much of Eddie in the film is me – but that doesn’t make Amber’s experience of being at one with her sexuality and allowing herself to have the things she wants in life any less authentic either. No two queer experiences are the same. That’s the film’s beauty, these two separate journeys of two separate queer identities side by side; incredibly intertwined, but also entirely each protagonist on their own journey.
Their narratives are so intertwined in fact that by Dating Amber’s close, the protagonists have swapped their needs. Amber begins needing to escape small-town Ireland and travel to the metropolitan city so that she doesn’t have to hide from the world and be who she is; Eddie begins needing to fit in with his environment so he can hide from himself. Amber ends needing to stay in her environment as she’s learned she can fit in it; Eddie ends needing to escape so he can escape and be who he needs to be. There’s a nice swapping of mise-en-scène too: after spending the film with Amber framed by the urban landscape and Eddie by the rural, in the final moments it’s reversed. The most beautiful moment of the film – alongside a euphoric club scene near the middle – is right after we’ve cut to black at the end, and we hear Eddie exhale. Finally he can stop holding his breath and be who he needs to be.
It’s an ending that’s ultimately happy, but also tinged with a bit of sadness, a kind of happy melancholy that’s as true to Eddie’s experience as it is to coming of age experiences the world over, whether straight or queer – “there’s nothing worse than being a teenager … it’s a traumatic time and a very confusing time,” says director Freyne. The film is essentially about the universal coming of age struggle of “finding your tribe”, only this time told through an energising perspective on authentic queer experiences.
While the setting of mid-90s Ireland does dwell on Dating Amber, it’s as relevant today as it was back then, as Eddie’s story is testament to. The landscape may now be easier – depending on who you ask – to come out now, 25 years later, but Eddie is surrounded by a loving family. His father isn’t bigoted, only dealing with his own trauma thanks to growing up in a world that taught men to bury their feelings. His teacher rolls his eyes at an outdated, heteronormative sex and relationships ‘educational’ video, and doesn’t punish Eddie when he attempts to kiss him but instead is struck with embarrassment.
Eddie’s mother, played beautify by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, figures out Eddie’s sexuality for herself and gives him the space to tell her if he wants, while emphasising her love for him. Eddie needs to come to terms with himself, not the world with him, just as many queer people today need to. Amber’s experience is also relevant today – you can be comfortable with yourself but that doesn’t always mean the world will be comfortable with you. While they seem entirely opposite, that doesn’t stop both being true. Or maybe you simply want to see a genuine queer experience of living a life not tainted by the trauma of your sexuality or gender identity, just of living and loving.
That’s why the film works so well, and is so important. These two separate yet intertwined queer perspectives, genuine and as relevant to today as ever. They contrast and contradict but also concur. They both represent the truths of the queer community. They’re different – and that’s amazing.