Kissing Jessica Stein


Directed by: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
Written by:Heather Juergensen, Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen, Tovah Feldshuh, Jackie Hoffman
Released: November 7, 2002
Grade: A-

A fresh wave of independent films are appearing in Australian cinemas.  Usually, the Dendy or Palace cinemas have had exclusive rights to such titles but in this quiet time of the year, huge multiplexes are branching out to offer them to a wider audience.

There’s a scene late in Kissing Jessica Stein that sums up why I love unconventional cinema.  Two people are having a relationship.  At a wedding, one of them goes out on to the balcony with an old friend and the two share a kiss.  Usually, this would be the part where the jilted lover would walk in, see them kiss and them storm off (completely misunderstanding the situation before seeing the truth later on).  But instead, the other partner walks in a few moments of the kiss and never sees it.  Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld crosses the cliché line and doesn’t even blink.  When you see what happens to all three characters in this scene, you’ll find his breaking of the cliché rather ironic.

A rave at film festivals worldwide (including the Brisbane International Film Festival), Kissing Jessica Stein’s quirky New York setting gives it a modern-day Woody Allen feel.  As the title character, Jessica (played by Jennifer Westfeldt) even speaks like Mr Allen.  She’s like Phoebe out of Friends.  Her love interest is Helen (played by Heather Juergensen).  In fact, both stars also co-wrote the film.  It’s the shame they haven’t gotten the same exposure as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for Good Will Hunting.

If you haven’t already gathered, this is the tale of a same-sex romance.  Jessica has complex issues and constantly breaks up with guys because they’re not “perfect”.  Things aren’t getting any better for her.  A friend asks her if she talks about her relationships with her therapist.  “Of course not” she replies, “that’s private”.

In the paper she reads a personals ad that at first, grabs her attention.  But it turns out to be from a female “seeking same”.  Why not give it a go for something different?  It turns out the lady at the other end, Helen, is also experimenting but has a lot more confidence and is more sure in her quest for another woman to share her life with.  It’s going to be a rocky romance with one ready to go slow and the other ready to plow ahead.

The supporting characters may look like something from a one-season sitcom but it’s a smart screenplay with great dialogue.  You’ll learn that the word “marinate” can have many uses, someone can be both sexy and ugly, and it’s important for women to accessorise in the bedroom.

Winner of the audience award at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival, it’s an appealing film that will hopefully get its chance to appeal to an even wider audience here in Australia.  So if you can’t find someone better, why not try Kissing Jessica Stein.