Wolfe Video,

Thom Fitzgerald

Olympia Dukakis,
Brenda Fricker,
Ryan Doucette,
Kristin Booth
Michael McPhee

Unrated, 93 minutes

Take Off To The Great White North
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online October, 2013

I wanted to love this movie. There aren’t enough queer films out there that celebrate our elders and their longtime relationships. I can’t think of very many and most that come to mind are documentaries. Cloudburst, from noted queer auteur Thom Fitzgerald (3 Needles, The Hanging Garden), won a lot of awards on the festival circuit and it is a noble but mixed effort to fill this void.

Full disclosure: I first watched Cloudburst a few months ago. I enjoyed the beginning but then lost patience with a good chunk of the film’s middle and, most of all, hated the ending. (Let’s, for no reason, pull out all the stops and really make this a tearjerker.) But I couldn’t stop thinking about how delightful the scenes were between Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, and so I looked at the film again. This isn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last, movie that I remember mostly for its star performances. They deserved a better script, but these two seasoned pros light up the screen. You will love these ladies.

Stella (Dukakis) and Dot (Fricker) are in their seventies. They live in a small Maine town and they have been a couple for 31 years. Still rambunctious in their golden years, these ladies belong together. Dot is almost blind, but she knows that Stella rented porn when she hears the moans coming from the TV. (Stella says that it’s a love scene and Dot remarks that it’s an awful long love scene.) They joke about how you can actually buy lesbian porn now in a gas station. Stella playfully pokes Dot with a vibrator. The love they have for each other couldn’t be more obvious. There’s a lovely moment later where they share a soaking wet kiss during a sudden cloudburst that evokes feelings of joy.

Stella, the butch one, drives a pickup truck and swills Tequila. She has short hair, wears a cowboy hat and a flannel shirt, swears like a sailor and, at one point, is mistaken for a man. Dot, despite her years, is still a sweet little Irish girl. It is clear from the onset that her health is failing. You will be moved by how Stella takes care of her. They watch a sunset and Dot listens to Stella describe the colors. When asked what the clouds look like, Stella sees a donkey carrying two nuns and a beagle. The scene is sweet without being sappy.

Dot’s granddaughter, Molly, seems oblivious about their relationship; she thinks they’re just old friends. She also wants Grandma’s house and, taking advantage of her blindness, tricks Dot into signing over power of attorney. Molly, a misguided but traitorous brat, thinks she is doing what is in Dot’s best interest and puts her in an assisted living facility. Stella, of course, doesn’t stand for this. She breaks Dot out of the nursing home (a very funny scene) and they head to Canada to get married so that no one can legally split them up again.

I know, gay marriage is legal in Maine now. My guess is that it wasn’t when Fitzgerald first wrote the play on which he based this film.

On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker. His name is Prentice (Ryan Doucette). A dancer who “pushes the artform,” he is clearly a bone thrown to gay male viewers so that they’ll keep watching. “Pull up your pants, kid,” Stella shouts out the truck’s window, “You’re humping the wrong fire hydrant.” He’s hitchhiking to Canada to visit his sick mother. When that meeting doesn’t turn out as planned, he looks to Stella and Dot as his new mothers. He asks if he can be best man at their wedding and, later, delivers a very heartfelt toast in their honor.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie, doesn’t it? Aside from some over-the-top histrionics and borderline slapstick, most of the film has been pretty good so far. But then, as the geriatric Thelma and Louise road trip part kicks into gear, Cloudburst starts to get silly. There’s an all points bulletin out for these two old ladies yet we never see a police car. They split up to create confusion and this is when the film really meanders and it lost my interest completely for a long stretch. I tired of the forced road movie humor, not to mention the absurd interlude at Prentice’s mother’s home featuring his naked stepfather (for a film that’s about two old lesbians, there’s sure a lot of male frontal nudity). Luckily, once the road trip has run its course, the film comes vibrantly back to life again. This is when the film’s focus returns to where it should be – the love story between Stella and Dot.

Dukakis and Fricker are the glue that holds this film together. They are transcendent.  It is a tribute to both actresses that they almost make you forget the film’s weak spots. You completely believe that they are a longtime couple; they complain and nag each other about their aches and pains and, most importantly, they are still frisky. Now that I’m midway through my 50s, and pondering old age with my husband of 25 years, scenes like these resonate more with me than they once did. It’s nice to see the old couple taking center stage in a queer film for a change. (Or any film for that matter.)

My favorite scene takes place in an all-night diner after Stella has “kidnapped” Dot from the nursing home. Stella suggests driving to Canada to tie the knot but Dot calls marriage a “crock of shite” and needs convincing. Stella proposes to Dot and their banter is both comic and touching. Exasperated by Dot’s playful but practical resistance, Stella declares, “I loved you for 31 years, I loved you when you got fat, I loved you when you went blind, I’m going to love you forever.” In the end Dot agrees and then completely deflates the moment by joking, “And we can see other people.”

Cloudburst has many scenes like that one that are both realistic and very funny. There is also a lot of terrific repartee between Prentice and the ladies, and so it wasn’t necessary to also indulge in comedy more suited to one of the Hangover movies. Besides the aforementioned naked stepfather scene, you can also predict that Prentice will wind up getting strip searched on the Canadian border because Stella can’t keep her mouth shut. Stella likes to be vulgar and, while her outbursts are often hilarious, there were times when I thought that she sounded like she stepped out of an episode of South Park. Forget subtlety - when Molly takes Dot away, Stella shrieks, “You fucking cow I’ll grab you by your stinking twat and tear you open!” Okay Stella, don’t hold back. But then, when she stops screaming, the pained look on her face is heartbreaking. This is why I’m so mixed on this film. One minute it’s getting on my nerves, the next I’m about to cry.

But despite the crude things that Stella says, she can also sometimes be witty; like when she refers to their kind as "a gaggle of gays" and a "flock of lesbians." She also surprises with some nuggets of wisdom that can only come from a lifetime of experience. “Don’t live for the here and now, it sucks,” she tells Prentice. “You live for the future – the one you imagine even though you know it’s not going to happen. If you have a perfect day – you hold on to it!”

Gay marriage is always in the news and probably will be for many years to come. At this writing, New Jersey just became the 14th state to allow gay nuptials. But until it is legal in all 50 states, Cloudburst will remain a timely story and what better argument for gay marriage than showing these two old ladies in love? I liked how the film also looked at the attitudes towards marriage even in the gay community. Dot reflects how “for 30 years we couldn’t get married. Marriage wasn’t for us, it was for other people, for normal people, so I told myself it was a crock of shite and suddenly wham we can get married.” Then, she adds happily, “And you asked me.” Here, we can see how much difference a few decades has made. Yet some still cling to old prejudices. When Dot finally talks to her bigoted granddaughter about Stella, Molly asks why she never told her and Dot says, “I thought it was obvious.”

Writer/director Thom Fitzgerald won the Merritt Award for Outstanding New Play when his original 2010 play premiered in Nova Scotia, and he has done a nice job opening it up for the screen. Doucette (Prentice) and two other cast members reprise their roles from the stage. The photography is often quite beautiful (the scenery very Brokeback Mountain), and the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of k.d. lang, Country & Western, and a bizarre use of “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” by Tony Orlando and Dawn.

I wish I could discuss what it was that really soured me the first time I watched the film, but I can’t do that without giving away the ending. (No, it doesn’t end like Thelma and Louise.) However, based on the many gushing review blurbs on Wolfe Video’s site, and the number of festival awards the film won, my criticisms don't appear to be universal. I do, of course, share everyone’s admiration for Dukakis and Fricker. It’s rare to see two legendary actresses paired in an indie queer film and we should enjoy such treats when they are offered. Cloudburst doesn’t reach its full potential but it’s still very much worth seeing.


More On Thom Fitzgerald:
The Hanging Garden