I’m ready for an honest, mature, and realistic film portrayal of BDSM and Polyamory. S&M Sally is unfortunately not that film.
The film follows the story of a group of friends exploring their sexualities. Jill and Jamie, a lesbian couple, start experimenting with BDSM in their relationship. Jill is supposedly experienced, having been a regular at BDSM clubs in San Francisco in the past. Jamie is timid and unsure, afraid that playing the role of a submissive will somehow threaten her butch status.
On the other side of the coin, a bisexual Sebastian is trying his hand at dating both Lola and David at the same time. I appreciate that the film portrays each relationship as separate, instead of an established couple inviting in a third, or the formation of a triad. I also appreciate that the trio is made up of two men instead of two women, that neither the film (nor Lola) questions Sebastian’s bisexuality, and that neither partner is put off by dating a bisexual man.
For everything that S&M Sally gets right, however, it seems to get something else wrong. None of the characters in the film are very good at communicating their feelings, and the script seems to play into a lot of clichéd assumptions about both open relationships and kinky sex. If the film were a drama, it might be able to pull that off as realistic portrayal of the complexity of human relationships, as I’m sure many people falter when exploring new territory in this way.
But as it stands in the midst of a romantic comedy, the characters of David and Jamie seem to be set up as two-dimensional characters for the presumably vanilla and monogamous film viewers to identify with. Additionally, their insecurities seem to be played for laughs rather than as a way to educate the audience about how things could be done better.
The presumably experienced characters like Jill and Sebastian also get it wrong as often as their uneducated counterparts. Before their first scene together, Jill tells Jamie she doesn’t need a safeword because Jill will be “taking it easy” on her. But Jamie is brand new to BDSM and still quite unsure and nervous. If a bottom requests a safeword, a Top should grant it, regardless of how intense they are planning the scene to be. A safeword can be a great way to build trust between new partners, and often a Top will encourage someone new to the scene to safeword before they need to during their first scene, just to get reassurance that the Top will actually stop. And at the very least, public dungeons usually have a universal safeword like “red” – a fact of which Jamie should have been made aware upon entrance or while signing the waiver.
Once they are in the scene, Jill does a good job explaining the difference between “good” pain and “bad” pain, as well as describing each new flogger she uses. Jill is also correct to reassure Jamie that Topping has nothing to do with being butch, and that if Jamie submits, she doesn’t have to give up her gender identity. But that doesn’t make me feel better about her repeated willingness to push past Jamie’s hesitancy and to assume she knows better than her partner what she wants and needs from the experience. There is a difference between a role-played “No” and a real one, and several times Jill seems to push just far enough past a real “No” of Jamie’s to make me as a viewer uncomfortable.
In the same vein, Sebastian invites Lola over for dinner during a date he is having with David, but without telling David. The first metamour meeting should be planned and discussed with the consent of all involved. Even if Lola and David are acquaintances, being new to polyamory and surprised in the middle of a make-out session with your boyfriend by his girlfriend knocking at the door, only to find out she’s been invited to your romantic dinner without your knowledge? That is quite insensitive of a move on Sebastian’s part.
Sebastian also pressures the (gay) David into agreeing to a threesome with him and Lola. David is still in the space of comparing himself to Lola and feeling insecure about his place as the newest partner in Sebastian’s life. To propose a threesome as the first time Sebastian and David will be sexually intimate again seems very insensitive – especially bringing the topic up with Lola in the room, where David agrees in large part to save face.
I will not go so far as to say either Sebastian or Jill are abusive towards their partners, because I think the film stops short of that. But anyone who has suffered abuse in a past relationship may find some uncomfortable feelings and red flags come up during the course of the film.
Throughout the film, Jamie and David are both portrayed as going along with what their partners want to prove something about themselves. David even says at one point, “I’m just not as cool as you guys, apparently.” But no one should enter into a polyamorous relationship to prove they are cool or mature, just as no one should enter into a BDSM dynamic just to prove to their partner that they are sexy and “up for anything.” Both David and Jamie spend the entire film trying to prove how okay with everything they are, but if the audience can see right through the act, why can’t Jill or Sebastian?
S&M Sally is a light-hearted comedy, and ultimately does portray both BDSM and polyamorous relationships in a positive light. It’s understanding of queer relationship dynamics and pitfalls is ahead of other films I’ve seen, but it is also problematic in a lot of ways as I’ve outlined above. As long as you’re willing to take the film with a grain of salt, it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an evening. I would just hate for a viewer who identifies with either Jamie or David to get the wrong idea about how they can expect to be treated by future partners if they explore non-monogamy or kinky sex. I look forward to a film which is able to show characters who take a more ethical stance regarding how they treat their partners and which doesn’t play up the insecurities of the ignorant partner for laughs.
S&M Sally screens Thursday, September 10 at 9:45PM at the Alamo S Lamar. If you do not have a festival badge, individual tickets can be purchased here.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/09/2015.