Jennifer Reeder was in London to screen her feminist skatepunk short Crystal Lake at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival – and five months later she’s back for the 2017 Flare LGBT Film Festival with her feature Signature Move, from a screenplay by Lisa Donato and Fawzia Mirza, who also takes the lead as Zaynab. A heartfelt, closely observed story of a Pakistani-American lawyer (Mirza’s job before she became a screenwriter) balancing caring for her mother, falling in love with bookstore-owner Alma, and training as a wrestler, Signature Move builds on Reeder’s summoning, in her shorts, of the inner worlds of desire as they meet the outer realities of politics, both family and national.
“What’s my signature move?” wonders Zaynab as she sits dazed in the ring after another bruising session with her trainer. Despite her sassy attitude – cool scooter, eyeroll repertoire, and high alcohol tolerance – Zaynab is a little lost on life’s path. She says she’s never been in love, but she and Alma become more than a one-night stand after Zaynab realises that Alma has swiped her ID.
Alma, a character given almost manga intensity by Sari Sanchez and her huge green eyes, surprises herself by falling in love with Zaynab, and getting frustrated with her girlfriend’s semi-closeted status. The film similarly surprises by showing how falling in love brings Alma and Zaynab closer to their mothers, as well as to each other.
Alma’s mother Rosa is better known as Luna Peligrosa, a former Lucha Libre pro-wrestler. Meanwhile Zaynab’s recently widowed mother Parveen (screen legend Shabana Azmi) has moved into her daughter’s apartment, and refusing to go out, surveils the men in the neighbourhood to find her daughter a husband. Despite her consumption of romantic Pakistani soap operas, Parveen can’t see where Zaynab’s heart is leading her until she spies it with her binoculars – at the very moment that Alma gives Zaynab a coming-out ultimatum.
Clearly more than competent at her job (a neighbourhood legal practice that focuses mainly on immigration cases), Zaynab is something different from the hot messes that we’ve come to love from recent US queer and feminist cinema, even if she trips over the ropes getting into the wrestling ring. Like the messier Shirin in Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan, 2014), however, Zaynab also wants to maintain a closeness to her family and culture as well as to the hipster queer circles of the Hideout Bar and wrestling ring. She contests the dominant coming-out narrative, arguing with Alma that she has a right to navigate her mother’s grief as well as her new relationship.
This new complexity seems like a signature move of new (new?) US New Queer Cinema, one that has responded to the emergence of transnational queer cinemas that don’t adhere to coming-out narratives, opening up to more diverse individual and cultural experiences within the US itself, as with Sydney Freeland’s Navajo coming-of-age drama Drunktown’s Finest (2014).
Signature Move is a multilingual and multicultural conversation, as Zaynab speaks Urdu at home with Parveen and in the office with clients, and Alma and her family predominantly speak Spanish. Zaynab and Alma’s sometimes awkward conversations – as when they exchange immigrant backstories over lunch – point up that English is their inadequate language of cultural exchange, somewhere they are both negotiating and adjusting. The film’s most romantic scenes use the non-diegetic soundtrack – which fuses electronic bhangra, hip-hop, and ballads – to show how the couple communicate through music, food, sex.
Reeder has one of the most acute ears for music in contemporary feature cinema: her shorts A Million Miles Away and Blood Below the Skin centre on a high-school a cappella girls’ choir which performs stunning versions of pop songs. Signature Move is suffused with musicality and aurality, creating complex cultural worlds and individual subjectivities. Parveen’s soap operas are never seen, but heard from the offscreen TV, which becomes particularly haunting when she changes the channel only to hear her husband’s ghostly voice advising her to be more accepting of Zaynab. It’s a neat low-budget solution, but also draws attention to languages, listening, and the hidden or secret, to what Zaynab herself has to learn to articulate.
Reeder’s films are as rich and lively as dreamscapes, sneaking in a (toy) tiger opponent – a wry shout-out to Rocky III – for Zaynab, during a final training montage. Her films embrace the unexpected, so that Zaynab’s decision to train as a wrestler is part of the vivid picture of her legal-caring-loving-bangle-coveting life rather than a transgression to be thrilled at or mocked. Confident in moving between dreamy desire and hard reality, Reeder also brings together Chicago’s Little India, its Mexican community, and its feminist and queer worlds: there’s no clash of civilisations here, but a narrative of ongoing navigation and negotiation that’s far more compelling.
In telling their story, Reeder and Mirza finally make good on the abruption of the North American New Queer Cinema by 9/11, returning to the celebratory multicultural, intergenerational, complex lesbian films of the last century’s end. Alma’s indie bookstore echoes the setting of Anne Wheeler’s much-loved Better than Chocolate (1999), while Zaynab’s relationship with Parveen echoes Reena’s relationship with her mother in Nisha Ganatra’s intercultural romcom Chutney Popcorn (1999). And the lucha scenes could be an homage to Kim Longinotto’s Japanese wrestling documentary Gaea Girls (2000).
As a signature move for 2017, remembering the 90s is a winner, and Reeder and Mirza are a tag team to reckon with.