Lost And Delirious 20 Years Later
A Quietly Haunting Love Story That Launched The Careers of Three Great TV Actresses
Introduction: I don’t normally do film reviews unless I can find a link to my TV criticism. The film I’m about to discuss actually has a very direct link to it, and I’ve been meaning to post an article about it for a few months.
There are no doubt too many within the LGBTQ+ community unsatisfied with the lack of representation on screen in film or television, even though the most recent GLAAD diversity report listed the highest onscreen representation on television. Progress is slow for everybody, and as someone who remembers just how truly hard it could be getting a gay/lesbian love story made twenty years ago, I know how far the industry has come.
When I was in college, gay/lesbian stories of any merit were entirely found in either in other countries or in the independent film market. Any attempt to try and put it into the mainstream media was often badly done. I fondly remembered Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy when it was released in 1997, and looking back it doesn’t hold up well at all — so much of the ambition very clearly looks now like the model for conversion camps that still exist to day. The films that were successful were probably much so for other reasons — as astonishingly brilliant as Bound was in 1996 and today, I have no doubt what the real reason was so many people wanted to see that moving, and it wasn’t to be enraptured by the incredible talent of the then Wachowski brothers. I know that’s not the reason I rented it — frequently — from Blockbuster at age eighteen.
I never got a clear picture as to what the gay and lesbian community thought of Lost and Delirious which was released more than two decades ago. It barely made a critical blip and it certainly was never a box office draw — it made less than $400,000 worldwide. What is clear is that it was a launching pad for three exceptional actresses who have, in their own way, dominated the television landscape in various ways throughout the last twenty years. And looking at the film again recently, it is very easy to see why. None of the three actresses were complete unknowns at the time but all of their work is revelatory in its own way. And that’s critical in a film that, while flawed, is still is a searing and haunting love story and tragedy.
The film takes place in a New England boarding school for girls. Boarding schools were not, even then, nearly as in fashion as they were for the twentieth century but writer-director Lea Pool’s was no doubt a necessity: it was a major cliché of lesbian stories in particular that you ‘experimented’ in boarding school before you ended up getting married. Pool goes out of her way to show as to what its real like.
The film is narrated by Mary, who has always had the nickname Mouse. Her mother has died from cancer three years earlier, her father has remarried and her stepmother has been instrumental in moving her to this school. Mary is timid and shy (hence the reason for her nickname) but more tragically she’s starting to forget what her mother looks like.
She meets her two roommates in a very specific order. The first is Victoria or Tori, who is the most obviously sexual of the three. She dominates the conversation all the way up to their room. “They don’t like us having the room to ourselves,” she says almost as a throwaway line. She says that they are the ‘Lost Girls’, no doubt meant to invoke Peter Pan. Unlike him, these Lost Girls will have to grow up — sooner then any of them wants too.
Mary goes downstairs to hide and Paulie, in what we will soon recognize in her bold fashion, jumps out at her with a cigarette in her hand. There’s a polite party that seems to be going on — the kind of thing we would call a society event. Paulie takes out a flask, spikes the punch, and starts a boom box playing hard rock. In the first ten minutes of the film, we have a very clear picture of the three female protagonists. We also get a hint of what’s going on below the surface. Later that night, Mouse goes to her window and sees Paulie and Tori kissing. “It sounds stupid, I know, but at the time I thought they were practicing for boys.” I have a feeling there were a lot of teenagers — and parents — who were in similar denial about many teens that way.
It is important to know that, from the beginning, neither Paulie nor Tori truly view themselves as lesbians. Indeed, there’s a scene early in the film where Paulie berates one of the teachers derogatorily for being a lesbian and having a crush on ‘Paulie. (There are two middle-aged women who are the only instructors we see at this school; it is never entirely clear what their relationship is.) What is clear is that the two girls are in love. There is a graphic sex scene in the film, one that almost certainly forced it to be released ‘unrated’ in the U.S., and that the relationship has been going on for awhile. Both speak of plans for a future when they graduate the following year.
The problem isn’t just about their love or the relatively conservative era they live in. It is that their affair seems to only work best within the confines of the room they share with Mouse. They can’t seem to work out a plausible explanation when Mouse wakes up and sees the two in bed together and Mouse doesn’t press them on it. Indeed, the part of her that quietly loves both girls for who they are seems fine with it. The rest of the world doesn’t.
When Tori and Paulie are found in a compromising position halfway through the film, Tori starts doing damage control. She is the only one whose mother is still a part of her life, and she doesn’t want her to ‘freak out’. Tori’s mom is taking her to Italy for summer break, and that matters to her. She immediately hooks on to a boy she earlier labeled as ‘disgusting’. Paulie, who is the boldest and most romantic of the three, takes offense and starts doing things that are truly shocking, all the while still denying her true nature. There are scenes in this film — one near the end where Paulie shows up in fencing gear and demands ‘a duel’ with her male rival — that could seem funny. They never do, because of the other seriousness with which Paulie takes her love and the world she lives in.
The critical reaction to Lost and Delirious when it came out was mostly mixed with one critical exception. Roger Ebert, who had a habit of recognizing truly brilliant movies when they came out, raved about it and gave it three and a half stars and raved about every element. He said it reminded him of his youth, Thomas Wolfe, and shouting at the moon. He said that the unrated rating was a travesty that this movie was perfect for mature teenagers. I believed then, as I do now, that he was right.
The reason the film works as well it does was the absolute perfection of the casting of the three leads. Piper Perabo was incredible as Paulie. The moment I saw her dancing in the gazebo in the first scenes of the film, I knew I was looking at a potential superstar. She would have moments of success in far lesser movies (such as Coyote Ugly and a different kind of lesbian love story Imagine Me and You) before gravitating to television. She would star in the USA spy drama Covert Affairs for six seasons and has worked steadily in TV ever since — in the past year alone she was a regular on the ballet drama The Big Leap and recurring roles on the hit shows Yellowstone and Billions.
Jessica Pare plays Tori, who had a more direct climb to stardom. Seen first as a regular on the one season sensation Jack and Bobby, she received the superstardom she deserved for her work as Megan, the secretary who becomes Don Draper’s second wife at the end of Season 4 and for the next few years accomplishes the nearly impossible — makes him happy before wanting her own ambitions. The scene where she sang Zou Bissou Bissou in the Season 5 premiere is a TV classic. She has starred on Seal Team for six seasons.
Mischa Barton, the youngest of the three leads (she was only fifteen when the movie came out) had the sad misfortune of becoming a superstar too soon. Not long after Lost and Delirious came out, she landed the role of Marissa Cooper on the Fox cultural and ratings hit The O.C. unfortunately, her character quickly became one of the most despised on the series. Her characters death at the end of the third season was even more controversial and the show never recovered its popularity, something that Barton would end up also being blamed for. She has never worked steadily since or had anywhere near the level of success her costars have had recently. This is a shame because while Pare and Perabo are both exceptional in Lost, you can’t imagine it working without Barton. She has to appear shy and timid, but eventually become worthy of the name ‘Brave’ that Paulie bestows on her in a critical sequence in the film and by the end of the movie she does.
Is Lost and Delirious a lesbian love story? I can imagine that even now viewers would question is, even argue whether any of the characters see it that way. What I do know is that it is one of the most realistic portrayals of being a teenager I’ve ever seen in a film, one of most earnest and ultimately the most tragic. The film comes to an end at a moment that is so shocking that Pool chooses not to show the full aftereffect of it — even more than twenty years later, the final image haunts me. But I don’t see any of the three women as tragic figures, merely flawed and broken in their own way. The main difference — and why I find the movie inspiring in a sense — is that at least one character has learned the lessons from the mistakes that the other two have made and she is almost certain to be able to move on and perhaps even find love in her own fashion.