Gillian Wallace Horvat is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, writer, and film programmer. Her feature debut, I Blame Society, a dark satire that she wrote, directed and stars in, is out now on VOD through Cranked Up and will be available on Shudder from February 8. Horvat is currently nominated at the Film Independent Spirit Awards for the Someone to Watch Award, which “recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.” Her short film Kiss Kiss Fingerbang, starring Anton Yelchin, Kate Lyn Sheil and Buck Henry, was awarded the Jury Prize in the Midnight Shorts category at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival and it later premiered online as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Her films have screened in festivals around the world including SXSW, Fantasia, Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, Maryland Film Festival, Yale University, and many others. Gillian also produced A Fuller Life, a documentary on the life and films of director Samuel Fuller that premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Recently she has produced documentary shorts for Arrow Films, Kino Lorber and Olive Films, working on projects ranging from an American Ninja box set to Orson Welles’ Macbeth. She is also a guest columnist for Filmmaker Magazine and her writing has appeared in Sight & Sound.
I went to public school in the suburbs and one of the things they taught us there was don’t give up – on anything – because hard work can solve any problem. I think that’s the reason why I stayed so long in my last relationship, years past the expiration date. I’m not sure how I thought perseverance would solve the dysfunctional partnership, but I did. Even though I was unhappy, when the end of the relationship inevitably arrived, it hurt. It hurt because the reasons he stopped loving me were the same reasons that he fell in love with me. When that happens, you become convinced that the next time someone falls in love with you, the seed of your relationship’s destruction has just been planted.
Still, I think I took finding myself single in my early(ish) 30s pretty well. I was confident I’d have about a year of bad dates, meet some new friends, and then after I’d done my time of single penance, I’d meet the right person and it would all be over. So, at the end of 2019, I downloaded a dating app and with equal parts anxiety and excitement checked out the profile that had sent me my first like – a Superlike! It was the man who raped me the last time I was single. The coincidence was so dark, I actually thought it was funny. I remember saying to myself, “This really sets the tone for the next chapter of your life.”
Actually, it really set the tone for the next chapter of all of our lives.
I decided to change my filters on the apps to exclude men, but it was seemingly impossible to escape them because most of the accounts for women actually belonged to couples – even the solo profiles of women frequently belonged to people in non-monogamous relationships. The typical account that messaged me was looking for “a girl to spoil with travel and adventures,” and usually featured a picture of a man with shaved head with a woman in tiny white shorts sitting on his lap. Sometimes I would almost get worn down and I’d start to wonder if I was being too uptight. Who was I to say that meeting this couple at a Cheesecake Factory in Rancho Cucamonga, letting them buy me dinner, and being shared by them in their bedroom, watched by their big dogs (there were always big dogs in the pictures), wasn’t actually the kind of happiness that I needed but just didn’t know it yet? Then, on February 12, 2021, my debut feature, I Blame Society, dropped on VOD and to celebrate I decided to spend $19.99 on watching a new movie at home, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, 107 minutes of escapist entertainment that surely would have no direct relevance to my life.
At the beginning of Barb and Star, the two eponymous 40-something single protagonists, played by Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig, find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. They lose their sales jobs at Jennifer Convertibles because as they’re told by their boss (played by Javier from Felicity) that the entire chain of stores actually went out of business seven months ago and on top of that, that night they’re exiled from their friend group by an innocent violation of the rules of their “Talking Club.” Instead of being despondent, the two take the sudden windfall of their severance as an opportunity to jet off to Vista del Mar, a resort catering to a mostly middle-aged clientele, to see if they can restore their “shimmer.”
On the plane from Nebraska to Florida, the depth of Barb and Star’s friendship is illustrated by their non-stop overlapping chatter. They finish each other’s sentences, repeat their words, and dissolve into laughter, much to the annoyance of the other silent, grim, sleep-deprived travelers, who are not enjoying the journey and probably have never experienced the kind of connection with another person that Barb and Star have. Barb and Star continue to giggle and fantasize, oblivious to the disapproval of those around them. These women are radically different from nearly every other female protagonist I saw onscreen this year because they are authentically themselves; they don’t want to be anyone else or please anyone else. Even their quest for shimmer is an emotional quest to feel the vivacity and lack of inhibitions they felt years ago rather than a transformative quest to be a different, “better” person.
Their first night at Vista del Mar, Barb and Star encounter Edgar (Jamie Dornan) at the bar, who is also at a juncture in his own, very different, life. Edgar is being gaslit by Sharon (also Wiig, in Blanchett-face – hard to explain, but that’s what it is), his employer and the woman he loves, who dangles the promise of becoming “an official couple” to entice him to commit mass murder. After an innocent night of imbibing tropical drinks laced with club drugs together, the trio wake up the next morning in bed and, for Edgar and Star, in love.
As I mentioned before, I grew up in the suburbs. The way I learned how to date was that you hooked up with someone and if you hooked up enough times with them, you were in a relationship. It was a treacherous and vague way to form attachments, but effective enough that somehow decades later it has solidified into the foundation of how I believe relationships are created. The song “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop basically sums up my frequently disproven and self-destructive belief that two relative strangers can join in genital congress and at the end of the experience discover that they’re soulmates. N.B.: even though the song is credited to Bishop, the guitarist, the song’s emotional lyrics are performed by Mickey Thomas, the vocalist for Jefferson Starship, who’s also sung many other songs that have had totemic significance in my life (OK, all of our lives).
Because of the specific circumstances I had my formative romantic experiences within, I’ve always struggled separating love and sex. I know a lot of people feel this way at different points in their life, but during the pandemic I became really worried that I was not developing an emotional attachment to any of the people I slept with and a couple of them were really wonderful human beings. I couldn’t tell if it was the bizarre environment these relationships were developing in or whether I was becoming emotionally numb after my break-up. I suspected that I would have to settle for intimacy without feeling if I didn’t want to end up single in my 40s, a condition the dating-industrial complex has informed me is unacceptable and that I have sheepishly internalized.
Witnessing the emotional and physical connection between Star and Edgar restored feelings of hopefulness that had lay dormant for months, even as I noted the irony of such a broad, PG-13 studio comedy being responsible for easing my deep existential suffering. Yet there’s no question that Star and Edgar’s romance is a model of effortless purity. Neither of them seem capable of holding in their desire to communicate their feelings for each other, the opposite of the opaque rules of 21st century dating where you’re supposed to wait at least three minutes to respond to a text so you don’t look too eager. Don’t we want the people we’re dating to be eager to talk to us? There’s no playing hard to get between Star and Edgar – they realize how special what they’ve found is and they mutually decide after their first night together to become “an official couple.”
It’s not unheard of for people to jump into a relationship after sex on a first date, but there is a reason why the audience believes that Star and Edgar will last, despite the age difference (between the actors it’s nine years, although because of Star’s hair and Chico’s wardrobe, it feels like it may be more). Star is never anything but her authentic self when she’s around Edgar and he loves her for it. Although she’s insecure about certain things around Edgar, because of her ex-husband Carmine’s betrayal with another woman, she ultimately trusts that she and Edgar are truly in love. As Star says to Edgar, “You saw my folds and holes and you didn’t run away […] I think your dong went all the way down and touched my heart.” I also believe the reason she’s able to accept Edgar loves her is because her unconditional friendship with Barb gives her confidence and makes her feel worthy of love. Although Edgar’s mission foments complications among the trio, the film ends on an undeniably happy note with balanced affection among the three.
Yet, how wise is it for me to scrape off the barnacles on my soul and make myself vulnerable again because of the heteronormative “there’s a lid for every pot” message of a light, feelgood comedy like Barb and Star? I recommended the film to a single friend of mine in her 50s, who is both incredibly talented and beautiful. She enjoyed the film, but she was dismissive of the relationship between Star and Edgar. It actually bothered her because she thought its unrealistically hopeful love story would lead to destructive optimism on the part of viewers like me who should be steeling themselves to deal with the realities of early middle age.
The answer is, it’s probably horribly unwise and a dangerous gamble on being alone forever – but one thing that’s true in Barb and Star, as well as in life, is that our lives really can change in a minute. The pandemic showed that. Wouldn’t I be just as miserable being the third to a couple in Rancho Cucamonga as I would be holding onto hope for true love, getting more folds every day? Probably less miserable because I wouldn’t be in my car driving all the time. And I wouldn’t really be myself. And if I’m not myself, I’ll never be able to know what it’s like to be loved for myself again one day.