Dating Amber: queer solidarity at its purest

In 2020, it’s hard to believe that a film about a gay and a lesbian being each other’s beards (pretending to date each other so people think they’re straight) hadn’t been made. I suppose there was that one storyline on Glee… but still, here it is, finally, in full cinematic force. Of course, the main question is: does it live up to the hype? And the answer, of course, is complicated.

Dating Amber (David Freyne, 2020) is a coming-of-age comedy set in oppressive 1990s Ireland. The story follows baby gay Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and baby lesbian Amber (Lola Petticrew), and their developing friendship as they pursue a pretend relationship. As they get increasingly closer to one another, Amber opens up more to the world around her, whereas Eddie closes off. Inevitably, a lot goes wrong, and they are both eventually forced to confront their own identities behind the facade.

Biggest Gay Mood: being a lesbian and saying the words “I’m not a lesbian”
See also: being gay and saying the words “I’m not gay”

From the audio of Irish homophobia underlaying the title sequence, the scene is set immediately. We are transported to an Irish high school, with a Perpetua instagram filter aesthetic and colour palette similar to that of Netflix’s Sex Education (though this one is actually set in the 90s). Speaking of sex ed, the tone is further cemented in one scene early on via a hilarious classroom video where nuns make “no gay sex please” hand gestures. In a similar way to the boys in the playground making crude gestures at every girl in sight, it all seems like parody ー until you remember that this is what it was actually like. Irish (and British) 90s sex education really was that homophobic. Teenage boys really are that gross. And life for queer people really was that difficult.

Fortunately, this tragedy is played off against a hilarious amount of awkwardness. Eddie, under immense pressure from the boys, goes to make out with (or ‘shift’) Tracey and can’t even bring himself to touch her boob. When he and Amber decide to date (she comes to him: a lesbian can spot a fag from a mile off, they’re observant), their kisses to keep up the charade in front of their parents are twitchingly cringe to watch. Complimenting this, throughout the film the Derry Girl-esque school friends provide light comic relief. 

Top Tip: enjoy the Irish accents, they’re delicious

Lola Petticrew plays her role as the “not like other girls” girl (though Amber would never say that) wonderfully. With her partly coloured hair and suspiciously mature intelligence, even the girl who doesn’t care what anyone thinks cares that people think she’s a lesbian. Her homelife is a little tense, and we learn that her late father hides a (undiscovered) dark secret. In a similarly entrepreneuring way to Maeve from Sex Education (again), she distracts herself from her misery and earns money simultaneously, renting out her caravan to horny teenagers. Alan Sugar, eat your heart out. She is saving up to move to London so she can open “an anarchist bookshop with franchise potential”. As the film progresses, she comes to terms with her queerness more quickly than Eddie.

Eddie, on the other hand, experiences a more taut emotional journey. Though I don’t mean to underplay the difficulties that queer women face, I think this discrepancy reflects the severity of the impact toxic masculinity has on young boys. In army cadets, he is privvy to endless homophobic and misogynistic rhetoric (because isn’t it all the same, after all), which, as with so many gay men, he internalises. As his friendship with Amber progresses, he even convinces himself that they should be together for real; that to pretend his whole life would be easier than to live his truth. As a gay boy who’s always had girl friends (and some girlfriends), this is one plot turn I was heartbroken to have anticipated.

Fionn O’Shea ー star also of Handsome Devil ー plays Eddie’s emotional journey perfectly. His whole arc is underpinned by one feeling: fear. He is so scared, all the time: scared of his desolate future, scared of being found out, scared of his own identity; scared of being scared. This is reflected in his posture: he is constantly hunched over, desperately trying to not take up space, to not be noticed. There are moments where he gets to breathe ー sweetly, they’re often when he’s with Amber ー but for the rest of the time he cycles, like many gay men living in oppressive environments, between timidity and anger.

Soundtrack Stand Out: Love System, La Galaxie & Elaine Mai.
(It sounds like a late 80s gay club fever dream)

Dating Amber is refreshing in how it revolves around a non-romantic relationship (you can check out the friendship tag if you want more of this). In using queer friendship as its driving narrative, the film manages to twist tropes (y’all know I love a twisted trope) to provide wholesome motivation. I won’t give the ending away, but we do get the much-loved rom-com trope of a ‘fast run to stop something from happening’ that leads into your typical grand gesture. When the character’s motivation is someone they care deeply about, and someone with whom they have a longer history, it carries more weight. (And we’ll get onto the friendship between gay men and lesbians in a minute). However, Dating Amber does have one thing most straight rom-coms don’t: a bittersweet ending. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Look, I’m all in for queering the narrative. Some of my favourite films have open endings, and in some ways challenging traditional romantic narrative structures challenges heteronormativity as a whole. Equally, there is something very specifically queer about re-prioritisation within said structure: often, moments that may otherwise seem insignificant are brought to the forefront because they provide hope in a largely unwelcoming world. Having said all that, the ending of Dating Amber (again, I won’t spoil it) fell halfway between open and closed for me. I would have been fine with either, but the film didn’t seem confident enough in where it wanted to land. There was a definite trajectory, but relationships and plot points remained unresolved, and I couldn’t seem to work out why. The queer tension of escaping an oppressive rural environment to move to a big city vs. staying to try to make that environment better is palpable, though I’m not sure I agreed with the conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong though, the film retains a staunch queer power elsewhere. The most impactful scene was, for me, when Amber and Eddie sneak a day off school to go to Dublin, and end up stumbling across a gay bar. Once inside, Eddie becomes mesmerised by a drag queen on stage  ー presumably the first one he’s ever seen, having grown up in small-town Ireland. He is drawn to her like a magnet, and she ends up bringing him into an on-stage embrace, her barely audible whisperings of lip-synced lyrics cradling him in a soft lullaby.

Britney Line Time: “Shocking, ’cause I never knew love like this / Could exist”

From the moment they see the colours through the haze, the two baby gays stare forward in bemused wonderment. The power of a rainbow flag really hits you in that moment, and the sheer hope in their eyes is undeniably breathtaking. I wonder if rainbow NHS bagels ever had such an impact.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, because of the premise, I went into this film with high expectations; and, while I was marginally confused by the ending, I think Dating Amber pretty much lives up to said expectations. Overall, it is a film about a queer solidarity that thrives in spite of tremendous external and internal pressures. Eddie, as mentioned, is constantly in fear; yet with Amber, he feels safe. He gets more out of his friendship with Amber than he could from any gay boy likely to be as fucked up as he is. Though perhaps in not as profound a way, she learns from him too.

Ultimately, Amber and Eddie grow into their queerness as a result of meeting each other, and it is beautiful to see.

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