‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ touching, poignant

Woody Allen made a whole mini-genre out of the Jewish New York City-dweller writer love affair stories. From Annie Hall to Hannah and her sisters, all of his movies focused around the loneliness and despair of egomaniacs trying to somehow make a “connection” to other egomaniacs. The new lesbian film Kissing Jessica Stein seems to pay homage to Allen’s movies, especially Annie Hall with a new post-queer twist.

The main character, Jessica Stein, is a Diane Keaton look -alike with all of the flighty-intelligent idiosyncrasies Keaton brought to all of her Allen characters. A writer, upset over a bunch of failed blind dates and the prospect of spending the rest of her days alone, Stein answers an ad in a newspaper by a female (Helen) that used one of her favorite Rilke quotations. The two meet, get along splendidly, bond over lipstick, and throughout it all develop a connection that borders on love and friendship.

The best thing about Stein (and there’s a lot of good things) is the natural acting and character development displayed by all the leads and supporting actors. Everyone is fully fleshed out with interesting conflicts. The audience feels a connection to these characters, so much so that as the relationships tumble, and the characters go through the eventual gripping coming-out scenes, you feel remarkably for them – much more so than in the usual gay “coming out” fables that have unfortunately graced the screens in the past couple years.

While Jessica is not a lesbian (she never has an actual sexual attraction to women), the romance she plays out with Helen, and the ways this sexual obstacle is both something they overcome and are affected by, becomes one of the best sexual identity conflicts in cinema in years.

Jessica’s whole hope for the relationship is due to a fear of loneliness everyone has, and her flirtation with lesbianism comes from her intense fear. As she acts it out, breakdown scenes with gallons of tears and all, the emotions fly from the screen and fill the audience with a sort of sympathy and sadness. Helen recognizes that she and Jessica will only be best friends, yet loves Jessica all the same. Should they stay together or break up?

While the answer isn’t as good as the plot, getting there is quite an enjoyable, likable experience. The comedy and drama are blended as well as an episode of Roseanne.

Perhaps a little too sitcom-y at times, still it’s never forced. Add to that a great supporting turn by Tovah Feldshuh as Stein’s wise mother and you’ve got the best movie so far of 2002.