Do you remember the Great Eliza Dushku Thirst of the Early Oughts? I was barely into my adolescence, just figuring out that I was queer, and “internet fandom” was only a thing if you knew exactly where to look for it, which I didn’t. Nonetheless, I know I’m not alone in remembering those years as The Eliza Years. Between Faith Lehane on season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Missy Pantone in Bring It On, Eliza left a trail of Sapphic subtext everywhere she went, apparently without even meaning to. She’s not just my root, she is the rhizome that connects all Xennial queer chicks in one glorious, back-flipping, Fuffy-shipping organism.
But the writers of Buffy and Bring It On refused to acknowledge the seething sexual tension between Eliza and her co-stars, and for some ineffable reason she kept not coming out in real life (though I will keep saving her a seat next to me at the bisexual meetings until one of us dies).
And so – this is the only explanation I can come up with – one day a young queer woman was offered a wish, and she used that wish the way any one of us would have: I want a movie where Eliza Dushku has sex with a woman.
Wishes never turn out exactly the way you hope, do they? That poor woman. She got the movie she asked for… but far from the one she deserved.
Soul Survivors (2001) is an astonishingly bad movie. It has a 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is so bad that, while I know I saw it on DVD shortly after it was released, my memory retained almost nothing about it. And I mean, I was 14 years old. I didn’t even know where to find smutty fanfic that didn’t come from my own imagination and I still didn’t give the only gay sex scene of Eliza Dushku’s career a second viewing. For context, please understand that I own a copy of The New Guy (2002), and all she does in that one is try on bathing suits.
There are A LOT of bad movies that are still beloved by queer chicks because of a few flirty lines or a tortured look, but I haven’t yet found a single defender for Soul Survivors. Was it really that bad? In honor of the season, I decided to watch it again (my library system doesn’t have it, so I had to spend six human dollars to purchase it from Amazon) and see if I could scientifically determine what it took to make this into a movie no lesbian could love.
Herewith, the greatest but by no means only sins of Soul Survivors:
Making no goddamn sense. The film starts strong: a girl is walking home from a party when, with no buildup of any kind, some dudes drag her off the sidewalk and just totally murder her. It’s weird! It’s creepy! It… will never be referenced again in any significant way? The rest of the movie is about a college student named Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) being haunted by her boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck, ugh) after he dies in a car accident.
You could rearrange the movie in pretty much any order and it would not get any more or less coherent. Cassie has visions of the murderers from the opening scene following her around, and possibly trying to kill her, but it never adds up to anything. In one scene she fights with a friend, but in the next they’re cool. There’s a priest played by Luke Wilson, who may or may not be a ghost, but the storyline doesn’t make much use of Catholic mythology or, um, logic. At one point my notes say “Annabel is dead in the sadness gazebo. She says Cassie killed her. Cassie gets hit by a car. It’s Luke Wilson! Now Cassie’s in the hospital again. The surgeon is her professor who didn’t grade her midterm. The hospital is the goth club. Whatever.”
Soul Survivors seems to be going for a nightmarish vibe, as in surreal and scary, but it ends up being the kind of nightmare where as soon as you wake up you have no idea why it ever struck you as frightening.
Another drawback – and I find this is a stumbling block for many movies that otherwise stood a chance of being lesbian classics – is that for some reason they put a bunch of dudes in it. There are fully three men in this movie whose names we are supposed to remember, even though two of them are named “Matt” and “Sean,” which is the same name. Matt (Wes Bentley) is in love with Cassie, but he’s dating Annabel (Eliza), because Cassie dumped him for Sean. This causes Strife and Conflict, but because straight men aren’t allowed to have facial expressions, all of those things are primarily expressed through staring while having a jawline.
Following her near-death in the accident that killed Sean, Cassie is still on the brink between life and death, being pulled in both directions by the people she loves – which would possibly be compelling if those two concepts weren’t personified by Matt and Sean, neither of whom have any imaginable appeal. It’s like she’s having an existential crisis over whether to order the soggy white rice or the room-temperature lasagna with congealing cheese. Isn’t there anything else on the menu?
As if all the heterosexuality wasn’t aggressive enough, this movie also leans heavily into victim-blaming, rape-culture bullshit. Cassie crashes the car, injuring herself and killing Sean, because she’s driving while upset and distracted. She’s upset and distracted because Sean saw her “kissing” Matt, and is angry. Except what actually happened is that Matt cornered her in the car and aggressively demanded a kiss, ignoring her refusals and stepping up the emotional manipulation until he finally just grabs her face and goes for it.
Despite this fuckery, Cassie blames herself for both the kiss and the accident, and continues to be friends with Matt throughout the movie while his abusive behavior only escalates. He makes a copy of her room key and insinuates himself into every aspect of her life under the guise of “helping” her through her grief. None of this is intended to be read as coercive, even when he has sex with Cassie while she’s asleep and dreaming that he is Sean. There are whole sections of the movie where my notes are just “ew ew EW I hate men.”
Annabel, who is still Matt’s girlfriend throughout his increasingly disturbing Cassie obsession, walks in on them in bed together, so she becomes the second person to get angry and blame Cassie for being assaulted. Annabel also continues to be friends with Matt, who is a cheater and a rapist. This is a cool movie to watch if you love to see white men be horrible without facing consequences, but are tired of the news.
The actual queer stuff. Listen, I am not proud. I will watch absolutely terrible movies for a chance to glimpse a hot second of girl-on-girl action, but the key word there is hot. An early scene of Cassie and Annabel dancing together is a clear attempt to recapture the Fuffy energy, but all it does is definitively disprove the theory that you can put Eliza Dushku onscreen with any wholesome blonde girl and sparks will fly. They have no chemistry. None. This continues to be the case when they have a paint fight and then shower together fully clothed. It’s obviously supposed to be queerbaiting but it’s not even good queerbaiting, and I don’t know which to be more offended by.
But the Sapphic sex appeal plummets even further when Annabel’s new girlfriend Raven (Angela Featherstone) shows up. Raven is a soft-butch goth who says she can sense Sean’s presence, and even when I first saw this movie at age 14, I knew she took herself way too seriously. You can smell the clove cigarettes and mediocre poetry through the screen. Anyway, after Annabel catches Matt and Cassie in the non-consensual act, she goes out and hooks up with Raven in the library. Here it is, folks, the moment we’re all here to see: the only gay sex scene in Eliza Dushku’s career!
Except that it’s awful. Oh my God, it’s the least sexy thing I’ve ever seen in my life. This is why I blocked this whole movie from my memory. They’re, like, angrily licking each other’s tongues and grabbing each other’s tits in a way that screams, “This is the R-rated director’s cut and we’re allowed to show tits!” It is anti-erotic. It’s homophobic. It’s a hate crime.
It’s also clearly intended to show Cassie how depraved her best friend has become, which is why when she accidentally sees them she runs screaming into the night, instead of being like, “Hi, your goth boobs are blocking the book I need, can you take this elsewhere?” Lesbian sex, in this movie, falls into the same category as being followed down the sidewalk by dudes in masks, or waking up in a priest’s bedroom with a calendar showing the wrong year. It’s yet another sign that the world is askew and Cassie is in danger.
Maybe it’s actually a good thing the sex scene is so unforgivably awful. It’s saved queer women from seventeen years of trying to find any redeeming value in this misbegotten disaster of a movie. Toward the end, Soul Survivor swerves into a series of fake-outs where it’s hard to tell who really escaped the car accident, and who was killed. How did any of our crushes on Eliza Dushku survive this monstrosity? Maybe the same way Sean comforts Cassie at the end of the movie: by reassuring ourselves that it was all just a bad dream.