Ahead of the Curve

Review by Laura Venning @laura_venning

Directed by

Jen Rainin Rivkah Beth Medow

Starring

Franco Stevens Jewelle Gomez Melissa Etheridge

Anticipation.

Looks interesting but hardly as groundbreaking as its subject matter.

Enjoyment.

Franco Stevens’ charm and grit are irresistible.

In Retrospect.

An unexpectedly insightful look at a piece of lesbian history. Long live magazines!

This engaging documentary celebrates the work of an iconic lesbian publication and its fearsome creator.

On paper, it looks as if Ahead of the Curve might, ironically, be outdated. This exuberant documentary tells the story of Curve magazine, undoubtedly the most influential lesbian lifestyle publication in the world, and its irrepressible creator, Franco Stevens.

Founded in San Francisco in 1990 at a time when a magazine hidden under a mattress was one of the few sources of representation for LGBT+ people, Curve dared to print the word ‘lesbian’ on its cover and quickly became a lifeline for queer women across America.

But this isn’t merely a nostalgia trip, or a reverential portrait of Stevens herself (though she deserves one). Co-directed by Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin, Stevens’ wife, Ahead of the Curve dares to both honour this pioneering magazine’s place in LGBT+ history and interrogate its relevance today.

Stevens was forced to step away from Curve after an accident in 1997 left her permanently disabled, and the magazine is now in serious financial trouble. With online spaces becoming havens from shame and fear of persecution, do lesbians still need Curve? It’s a question that’s crucial but painful for Stevens to contemplate.

Just as this is posed, we’re transported back to the mid 1980s via crackly home video footage of 18year-old Frances Stevens’ lavish white wedding. But her fairy tale fell apart when she attended a class called Variations in Human Sexuality at San Francisco State University and was hit with an almighty realisation. Swapping the name Frances for Franco, she was kicked out by her family and forced to start anew.

Medow and Rainin capture the collision of the freedom but brutal reality of coming out in the late ’80s with a montage of images of liberated lesbian love followed by news footage of homophobic protests and graffiti reading ‘KILL LESBIANS’. Talking heads, largely Stevens’ friends and colleagues, describe the hostility they endured daily.

Curve, first published as Deneuve but forced to change its name after a lawsuit from French screen icon Catherine Deneuve, was a risky venture from the outset. No bank would give Stevens a loan, so she cashed in a stack of credit cards and headed to the racetrack where she bet on horses that miraculously kept winning.

The magazine’s rise is deftly interwoven with Stevens’ current work as an activist. Accompanied by Rainin and her service dog, she tours universities and conferences, meeting young LGBT+ artists and campaigners. While you might expect intergenerational clashes, especially when a panel discusses whether ‘lesbian’, the word Stevens fought so hard to print on Curve’s cover, is still an appropriate term. Yet Stevens herself is always warm, receptive to a changing landscape, and curious about what lesbians and queer women need from media today.

Tonally, the film effectively strikes a difficult balance between the hardship of Stevens’ struggle to keep the magazine going, especially while she experiences chronic pain, against the joy and connection she has clearly inspired. In terms of form, Ahead of the Curve doesn’t earn its title. And yet it’s difficult to care when this compelling story is told with so much heart. Curve might not survive in print, but the sense of belonging it sparked has endured.

Published 1 Jun 2021

Tags: Ahead of the Curve Curve Franco Stevens

Anticipation.

Looks interesting but hardly as groundbreaking as its subject matter.

Enjoyment.

Franco Stevens’ charm and grit are irresistible.

In Retrospect.

An unexpectedly insightful look at a piece of lesbian history. Long live magazines!

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