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Steamed Magnolias

MOVIE REVIEW
Steam (2009)

Steam_2
Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

"Steam’s" inclusion in the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is a bit tenuous, as only one of the three interweaving story lines has a gay theme. But any film with Ruby Dee, Ally Sheedy and Lane Davies is an embarrassment of riches. What a pity writer-director Kyle Schickner didn’t know what to do with the talent he had to work with.

The shtick is that Doris (Ms. Dee), Laurie (Ms. Sheedy) and Elizabeth (Kate Siegel) see each other about once a week in the steam room of their local gym before going back to their separate lives. It’s not a very strong connection – they don’t talk much, or even learn each other’s names – but there have been flimsier gimmicks. Doris is finding her feet after the death of her husband; Laurie is considering dating for the first time after her divorce; and Elizabeth is going away to college to escape the tyranny of her father (Mr. Davies).

I have admired Mr. Davies since 1987, when I started obsessively watching “Santa Barbara” because of him. Since that finest of the NBC daytime soaps was canceled, his screen parts have been limited to guest appearances on a huge variety of sitcoms, most recently as Elliot’s dad on “Scrubs.” As Kate’s overbearing, lecturing father, he plays virtually the same role in “Steam,” which is a pity, as I have known for decades he can do much more.

Elizabeth’s storyline is the one which earned the film inclusion in the festival, as in freshman year at college she discovers an undeniable attraction to wild, fickle Niala (Reshma Shetty). Meanwhile, Doris is managing her grief by attempting to move on, despite the demands placed upon her by her pastor (Charles Robinson, of “Night Court” fame) and a potential suitor, August (Dick Anthony Williams). Laurie’s still fighting with her ex-husband Tom (Ron Bottitta) about their son T.J. (Zach Mills), and only considering other men due to the encouragement of her best friend Jacky (Chelsea Handler).

Unfortunately, these three separate stories remain utterly separate, with only vignettes in the steam room linking them. There’s not even an attempt to bring the ending together for an overall resolution. The pacing drags badly due to lazy editing and the obvious budget issues allowed for no special cinematography, lighting or set design. Especially since “The Wrestler,” the working-class New Jersey setting feels like a cliché; sure there are other places where people still take the bus or use last year’s handbag. All of these sins are forgivable in a first film; surprisingly, this is Mr. Schickner’s fifth.

"Steam" is meant to be a film about women coming together despite the differences in their lives, but instead of giving them parts to sink their teeth into, Doris, Elizabeth and Laurie have to spend their time getting shouted at, patronized or lectured by various men. Why didn’t Mr. Schickner have the imagination to enable his female characters to speak or think for themselves, instead of reacting to the crap the men in their lives throw at them? It’s boring, sloppy and insulting. Of course Mses. Sheedy and Dee are able to transcend their material; Ms. Siegel fares a little less well, but then again, she has to suffer through a scene with her parents in church while accidentally wearing her girlfriend’s “Pussy Galore” t-shirt. Julia Stiles might have pulled that off, but Ms. Siegel still has a ways to go. "Steam" is worth seeking out for Ms. Dee's, Ms. Sheedy's and Mr. Davies’s performances, but mostly to wonder what they could have done with a script that matched up to their talents.

STEAM

Opened on March 20 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Kyle Schickner; director of photography, David Takashi Oye; edited by Thom Obarksi and Christopher Gosch; music by Damian Montano; production designer, Beth Mickle; produced by Lisa Basson, Kennedi Martin and Mr. Schickner. Running time: 2 hours. This film is not rated.

WITH: Ruby Dee (Doris), Ally Sheedy (Laurie) and Kate Siegel (Elizabeth).

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