The Josh Helman-directed relationship drama Kate Can’t Swim made its rounds on the independent film circuit and was just released on iTunes this week. The low-budget feature, executive produced by Girls star Zosia Mamet, follows a pair of best friends at a pivotal moment in their lives and relationship: Kate (Celeste Arias) has been with her boyfriend for five years when her adventurousbest friend Em (Jennifer Allcott) returns from a long European excursion with some newsshe’s dating a man, and it’s serious.
Em’s sexuality is never explicitly defined, but based on Kate and her boyfriend Pete’s (Grayson DeJesus) reactions, we can infer that she has exclusively dated women up until this point. Pete is surprised, but Kate seems genuinely affected by the news. Her and Em are extremely touchy-feely in a way that made my queer little bones shiverat the beginning, I had assumed the women were either ex-flames who have yet to fully burn out, or Kate has poor, sweet Em wrapped around her finger. Either way, it’s bone-chilling, and when Em’s new man Nick (Helman) invites Kate and Pete on a couples’ vacation to his upstate cabinspoiler alertit gets gay.
Like Em, Kate’s sexuality isn’t addressed, but based on their conversations, we’re left to assume she’s straight. Well, “straight.” When they first met, Em hit on her when they met as freshmen in college and they’ve been best friends ever since. Over the course of their log cabin journey, we witness Kate become more and more jealous, even indignant of Em’s boyfriend. This change of pace in Em’s sexuality seems to really rattle Kate and shake up some long-buried feelings. One night, they get drunk, and Kate corners Em while they’re alone and makes out with her. Em is reluctant at first, but goes along with it. Are you shivering yet?
The next morning, Em is visibly uncomfortable and conflicted, but Kate persists by trying to coyly interlace fingers while they’re tanning on the docks.
Em scurries inside to avoid confronting this glaring shift in their relationship, but Kate follows her. The way Kate treats Em is vile; Kate straddles her on the bed and flirts with her, taking a provocative photograph of Em’s chest. Kate kisses her, then goes down on her. Amidst this passionate affair, Em insinuates that she finds it all very confusing, but that 19-year-old Em would be thrilled. Eventually, the men returnfrom the store? Fishing? Finding wood?and Em quickly bolts. She rapidly becomes frustrated and vexed by Kate’s lackadaisical approach to this significant moment in their relationship. Especially because Em had previously admitted to having feelings for Kate in the pastand burying feelings for someone is no easy undertaking.
If you’re reading this and feeling physically repulsed, it’s because so many queer women have been through this with their straight-identified (probably bisexual) female friends before. There’s always one: she flirts with you, she holds your hand too much, she tells you she loves you, she insists on some nebulous plan to buy houses next to each other so you can grow old together and have kids who are best friendsnot that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything
Personal traumas aside, Kate Can’t Swim perfectly illustrates this revolting behavior from your toxic, probably ex-best friend, and watching it play out on film was like watching a hidden camera horror movie from my time as a baby-gay. It was like Paranormal Activity: Straight Women.
Of course, there is a very tiny sliver of humanity inside me that feels bad for Kate, because she’s not “straight.” Women like Kate struggle deeply with internalized homophobia, and grow up lying to themselves, insisting that they’re not queer at all, when in fact, they probably fall somewhere on the spectrum of bisexuality. That’s an extremely tough and sad feeling to grapple with, not to mention totally ubiquitous. In a perfect world where there is zero stigma behind same-sex romance, I’d imagine someone like Kate wouldn’t torture herself by playing mental gymnastics, but would rather could just live freely as queer woman.
But mostly, I feel for Em. She calls Kate selfish, and that’s exactly what she is. Kate knew that Em liked her in the past but buried it to salvage their friendship. To coax those feelings back to the surface a decade later for the purpose of sexual experimentation, or a whim, or some sort of territoriality is outright malicious. Playing with a person’s feelingsespecially a person you care for deeplyis malevolent and scarring, and while the movie ends on a cliffhanger, I’d say it’s high-time Em dumped this toxic friendship that she’s obviously outgrown.
The movie was full of twists, turns and clashing morality. It’s rare we get to see a film that focuses on the complicated, often conflicted, and emotional intricacies of relationships between queer womenor between queer women and straight-identified women. Navigating this type of relationship can be exhausting, at times impossible, and Kate Can’t Swim tackled this discord with a nuanced delicacy I’ve yet to see in queer filmmaking. This is a must-watch queer film.
Kate Can’t Swim is now streaming on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.