Boys on the Side starts out as an average movie about what would seem like three average women wanting and needing to escape the lives that they now have. Initial reviews claimed it was another “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Thelma and Louis” because of its female bonding, hopeful love and women on the run theme that runs across all three films, but that’s where the similarities end.
Jane, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is a lesbian – which is a big deal in 1995 when the movie was made. When characterizing Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Roger Ebert said in his 1995 review of the movie, “Yes, she is gay, but she doesn’t believe in imposing her choice on others, and it is only gradually that we realize what the stillness of her heart can contain.” So let’s not underestimate the power of Jane’s role for the time-period.
Jane lives in New York City as a musician and she has dreams of making it big in Los Angeles. Needing a travel companion to California, Jane meets Robin, a real estate agent who we find out later in the movie has AIDS and is played by Mary-Louise Parker. Robin had placed an advertisement in the paper looking for a ride-share to California and the two agree to hit the road in what appears to be a buddy road trip movie.
Nothing truly exciting has happened yet until they reach Pittsburg where Holly, a friend of Janes played by Drew Barrymore, is caught up in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. Nick, Holly’s boyfriend is your typical drugged out loser with a violent temper. After some mayhem including a baseball bat resulting in Nick being tapped to a chair, the three decide to hit the road together; Jane a lesbian, Robin the Aids patient and Holly the free-spirit running from her past, now pregnant with Nick’s child.
By this time, you are sucked into the plot and the viewer realizes it’s no longer a ‘buddy on the run’ movie, but more of a film that will break the mold for future related genre movies. Controversial for its time, it touched on sensitive issues that previously felt taboo, like lesbianism, AIDS and domestic abuse. It’s apparent that the three women are an unlikely match for a life time friendship and we know very little about the characters’ back story until Robin is hospitalized for an AIDS related respiratory problem and the other two find out that Holly’s ex-boyfriend suffered an untimely death as a result of her actions.
I found this movie to be both breathtaking and heartbreaking as issues like sexuality, gender, race and love come to the forefront of the plot and you see the most deeply demoralized minority groups portrayed in these three women. This movie spoke to my heart about what it means to be strong, independent and courageous. It opens your eyes to the innocence that can be found in true love and friendship as these three women walk hand in hand through medical issues, trust issues and even legal issues. It breaths a truth about companionship that has been lost in recent times and genuinely makes you want to follow them on this journey of hope.
Enter Tucson Arizona and the three are pulled over by a police officer named Abe Lincoln, played masterfully by a young Matthew McConaughey. Teased about his name, Abe says, “I take this name seriously! I cannot tell a lie.” McConaughey delivers the line reminiscent of what a future “all right all right all right “will sound like in Dazed and Confused. “That was George Washington, schmuck!” the women reply and we feel a well-deserved moment of comic relief to lift the weight of the movie from our shoulders, if only for a few scenes.
Holly falls in love with Abe, Jane falls in Love with Robin and while Holly is extradited back to Pennsylvania, there is a falling out of other two but they both wrestle with the impending death of Robin from her diagnosis. Settling in to Arizona, they find a wealth of support from the small community in a gay bar where Jane performs and I begin to notice how highly symbolic it becomes of many of our lives as we so rarely make it to the place we had envisioned in our minds, but also realizing that where you ended up is much better.
Like the movie Beaches, Robin dies and her death is symbolized with an empty wheel chair, Holly is released from custody and rejoins Abe in Arizona and Jane, determined to follow her dream, hits the road to wherever those dreams may take her. Despite Robin’s death, the movie ties itself into a nice little Hollywood happy ending bow at the end, and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that.
As all movie reviews say about love stories, because at the end of the day, Boys on the Side is really about love, I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. I watched this incredible relatable drama unfold in ways that that only well scripted movies can make you feel. Whoopi Goldberg reminded me of why I loved her dramatic acting in The Color Purple rather than her comedic roles in Sister Act.
The impact of average individuals dealing with incredible challenges as they navigate the twists and turns of life make this movie a timeless classic of courage and heroism that will undoubtable impact our society for years to come. There is a reason this film is included in top 20 lists for Trans folk. It continues to stand as a symbol of the impact we can have on each other as we begin to embrace differences and hold each other’s hands as we march forward into more compelling and complicated social issues.