Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself wanting to return to middle school. But all that changed when I watched Julianna Notten’s feature debut Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls, a queer comedy that follows a middle school student as she devises a plan to have her first kiss at prom.
Based on a 2018 short film of the same name, Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls opens with a montage of comic books. In the first scene, we meet Erin, an androgynous middle school student who wears a jean vest with pins, including a pin in the shape of a rainbow.
On her way to school, Erin sees a perfume ad with a man and woman kissing that reads “what women really want.” She grabs a marker and draws long hair and breasts on the male in the ad because as a queer girl, this ad does not depict her fantasy.
As someone who wasn’t out in middle school, even to myself, the beginning of the film was quite jarring, but in the best way possible. Erin is self-aware and confident in her sexuality, which is something I never experienced at her age.
Times have certainly changed since I was in middle school in the mid-2000s, but that doesn’t mean that the media has caught up. Most TV shows and movies with queer pre-teens still emphasize the coming out narrative. But in this film, Erin is already out. There is no sign of internal struggle with her sexuality; instead, she is both happy and queer at the same time.
Notten, who both wrote and directed the short film and the feature, was purposeful in her depiction of Erin’s sexuality.
“Growing up, [. . .] coming-of-age films with queer characters were rooted in tragedy or centered around a stereotypical portrayal of coming out. The inspiration for this film was born out of the frustration I felt with this fact,” says Notten. “I wanted to create a character who was confident in her sexuality without sensationalizing it, whose problems reached beyond the fact that she was attracted to other girls.”
Notten certainly achieved her goal, and did so with multiple queer characters. Not only is Erin queer, but so is her best friend, Liz. But the film doesn’t immediately portray the two of them as a couple just because they’re both queer. Instead, the film grapples with questions of what it means to have a queer best friend, and what happens when you start to pull apart.
Over the course of the film, Erin initiates a plan to kiss Sydni, a young actress with two moms. Their interactions are sweet, and very reminiscent of middle school, with a public promposal and a truth or dare game that puts both Erin and Sydni in the closet for “seven minutes in heaven.”
But rather than feel cliché, these middle school tropes were seen in a new queer light, which gave me a chance to imagine what it would have been like if I was out in middle school.
“Erin’s Guide To Kissing Girls is first and foremost a love letter to my younger self,” says Notten. “When queer women tell their own stories on screen, everyone stands to benefit.”