Artwork by IBTrav
Tattoo by Gillian Turner Ink
“What’s your favourite movie of all time?” It’s a question which routinely has the respondent casting their mind back to classically “great” films; relegating their oft-watched, rarely-admitted choices to the “guilty pleasures” bin for a later, tacit confession. While there are any number of titles I love which fall under the umbrella of more conventional cinematic greatness, the simple truth is the same now as it was when I first saw it in 1997: Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion.
It’s the story of two inseparable best friends who, confronted with the prospect of returning to their hometown and facing their high school tormentors, craft an elaborate lie (wherein they invented Post-its) to finally gain the respect and envy of their peers. Typically, this doesn’t go to plan, but – like Dorothy before them – the ladies ultimately learn that they had what they needed all along in their humble, pre-Post-it life: happiness, and each other. The two are played to perfection by Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow; who seem to so enjoy playing these women that it’s impossible not to find their fondness and humour infectious (and both of whom deserve credit for crafting two entirely new characters in the “dumb blonde” mould that could easily have veered into their more recognisable performances in Mighty Aphrodite and Friends respectively). At its heart, Romy and Michele is a film which – like its characters – doesn’t take itself too seriously and offers no apology for being exactly what it is: a hilarious, often ridiculous paean to friendship, individuality and self-acceptance.
In my early teens, and positioned squarely parallel to the titular characters on the high school popularity ladder (to wit: somewhere around the bottom rung), the story of two outsiders who escape their small town and learn that life is best lived on your own terms resonated with me as a beacon of hope. As an adult, and having long-since entered triple digits in my viewings of the movie, it’s a 90-minute capsule of pure joy that’s guaranteed to lift my mood regardless of anything going on around it; but has also served as a two-decade reminder to reject the notion of guilty pleasures entirely – at least as far as pop culture and media is concerned. (If your vice of choice is burning down orphanages, we maybe need to talk.) The self-consciousness we feel in attributing “guilt” to these pleasures arises solely from a concern for what other people will think of us for admitting it: where perceived artistic merit is at odds with actual, honest enjoyment. When I first met John, I asked him his favourite movie and he answered “Supergirl” without hesitation or any desire to impress me. It’s no coincidence that this is also the man I plan to marry.
But, for a premise as shallow as its protagonists, Romy and Michele is – in its own, unapologetically ridiculous way – a great movie; arguably because of its very eschewal of any staid ideas of “greatness”. Indeed, the point at which these women’s erstwhile carefree lives veer off course is the moment they begin to feel the need to justify them to the very people who made them miserable to begin with. Their decision to show up as “sophisticated, educated, successful career women” is one rooted in a modality of success that’s completely at odds with anything they would actually wish for themselves. Even Michele’s nightmare scenario of working at a discount outlet (“How am I gonna impress anyone by selling Ban-Lon smocks at Bargain Mart?!”) is closer to their actual dreams of self-expression through fashion and allowing others to do the same. The role of businesswomen is exactly that: an outfit they try on which turns out to as ill-fitting as the underwear riding up Michele’s butt crack.
It’s a sentiment compounded when former class nerd Sandy Frink shows up to the reunion and, having invented “some kind of special rubber or something” (“Like, for condoms?”) is universally declared the ”most successful person in our entire graduation class.” “Well,” replies a delightfully dorky Alan Cumming, “I guess that depends on how you define ‘success’. If, to you, success means having a house in Aspen, one in Acapulco, penthouse in New York, mansion in Malibu, a 60-foot yacht, an 8-seat Windstar, a Bell Jet Ranger, a Bentley, a personal trainer, a full-time chef, a live in masseuse and a staff of 24 then, yeah…I guess I am successful.” Crucially, however, Sandy isn’t presented as an object of envy, and the only sycophant trying to ingratiate themselves upon the revelation of his newfound wealth is the girls’ chief aggressor, Christie Masters; fawning, “You looks so rich! …I mean great.” Sandy’s narrative is the typical model through which high school outcast revenge scenarios are enacted: rubbing your success in your bullies’ faces to show them the error of their past cruelties. But what the film makes clear is that this particular version of success is still rooted in an outer veneer of prosperity that hasn’t equated to lasting happiness. “No matter how much I accumulate, there’s still one thing I just don’t have. […] I don’t have you Michele.” Sandy is at his happiest when he’s finally allowed the one, simple thing denied to him at prom: a dance. The opportunity to embrace his inner (and outer) weirdness alongside Romy and Michele is the real triumph.
The moment where an adult Romy finds herself once again humiliated at the hands of Christie Masters is the one wherein she has the most important realisation of all. Christie, clinging to her marriage with Romy’s one-time crush as a trump card in her lifelong game of oneupmanship, is visibly nettled by Romy’s lack of reverence for her marital bliss (her husband’s philandering notwithstanding): “Three kids?” deadpans Romy, “God, you must feel really tied down.” When Romy is unwittingly caught out in her big lie about Post-its, therefore, Christie seizes the opportunity for a highly public exposure in front of all their gathered peers. Arguably the greater victim of Christie’s mistreatments in their youth (if for no other reason than Michele was too oblivious to notice), Romy is momentarily broken by this return to loserdom; that is until Michele – in a rare moment of wisdom on par with her dream self knowing the formula for glue – stresses what the audience has known along, “I never knew we weren’t that great in high school. I mean we always had so much fun together. I thought high school was a blast. And until you told me that our lives weren’t good enough? I thought everything since high school was a blast. I think we should go back out there as ourselves and just have fun like we always do. The hell with everyone else.” Presumably Shakespeare was responding to his own bitchy prom queen persecutor when he had Polonius announce “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
This wake-up call proves the catalyst for the girls to take charge and return to the reunion dressed as the one thing they’ve successfully been from the start: themselves. It’s also the lead up to what is, for my money, the most satisfying clap back in cinematic history, when Romy finally confronts her nemesis in front of the assembled masses and asks: “What the hell is your problem, Christie? Why are you always such a nasty bitch? You get some kind of sick pleasure from torturing other people? I mean, yeah, okay: so Michele and I did make up some lame story. We only did it because we wanted you to treat us like human beings. But you know what I finally realised? I don’t care if you like us. Because we don’t like you. You’re a bad person with an ugly heart, and we don’t give a flying fuck what you think.”
And that moment – tattooed forever on my person – is the film’s take-home message. Success can be defined in one of two ways: how we’re perceived by others, or how we choose to think of ourselves. It’s not to be found in the accumulated millions of a special rubber empire, or the fawning adoration of our peers – it’s living your best, most authentic self with the funnest person you know. It’s the same sentiment expressed by that other well-known fashionista Carrie Bradshaw, who told us to find someone to love the you you love. The real victory isn’t putting Christie in her place – it’s overcoming any remaining self doubts and returning to their home in LA where the girls can get back to doing what they do best: looking cute and having a blast with their best friend in the world. Let’s fold scarves!
Mark Liddell 2017 | Facebook | Flickr | Instagram | Website