Opinion: Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of queerness and family is a sharp reminder

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

The biggest threat to queer kids is too often their own homophobic parents. Both pop culture and political discourse acknowledge this and at the same time, nervously avoid it. It’s treated as a shameful open secret, not unlike the closet itself.

Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky

Rose Glass’ “Love Lies Bleeding” wrestles with issues of queerness and parental cruelty with unusual and admirable directness. It also, though, doesn’t always seem to know how to contain the issues and emotions it unleashes in the confines of a more or less mainstream suspense thriller. Parental power over queer kids can be so overwhelming, and so destructive, that there are few genre tropes that seem adequate to provide escape or empowerment. “Love Lies Bleeding” is perhaps most successful in showing how far we have to go in even acknowledging the enormity of homophobic familial cruelty, much less addressing it.

The couple at the center of “Love Lies Bleeding” are Lou (Kristen Stewart), a chain smoking, depressive gym manager and Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a would-be bodybuilding champion. Jackie works at a gun-range owned by Lou’s dad, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). The gun range is really only a sideline for Lou Sr. though; he makes his real money through less legal means. Through a series of escalating missteps and disasters, Jackie and Lou threaten Lou Sr.’s business, with predictably dangerous consequences.

The plot, then, centers on a straight dad threatening his queer daughter and her girlfriend. That’s not a fanciful Hollywood narrative, but a bleak, much too common occurrence. LGBTQ youth report elevated rates of parental abuse and lower levels of closeness to parents. That’s a major reason why according to a Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University study, far more LGBTQ individuals reported adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as emotional, sexual and physical abuse, in comparison to straight adults.

Abuse often leads LGBTQ youth to flee their homes. Queer homeless youth are also more likely than their straight peers to engage in survival sex, such as trading sex for shelter or food, according to a study published in the LGBT Health journal.

Jackie begins the movie homeless and she trades sex in order to get a job reference, because she’s estranged from her homophobic family and doesn’t have many options. Lou on the other hand, assures Jackie that her dad doesn’t care about her being queer; he’s horrible for other reasons.

Writer-director Rose Glass and actor Kristen Stewart in discussion on the set of "Love Lies Bleeding." - Anna Kooris/A24
Writer-director Rose Glass and actor Kristen Stewart in discussion on the set of "Love Lies Bleeding." - Anna Kooris/A24

The movie, then, both directly addresses the experience of queer youth targeted by their parents and displaces it. Jackie’s parents, who are homophobic, are mostly offscreen. Lou’s dad, who is not, is at the center of the plot. Lou Sr.’s abuse is analogous to homophobic abuse and parallel with homophobic abuse, but it isn’t quite actually homophobic abuse. It’s Lou’s straight sister Beth (Jena Malone) who is targeted with the most explicit domestic violence from her husband JJ (Dave Franco), not from her father.

I don’t think this is a failure of nerve on the movie’s part. Rather, Glass’s film suggests that parental abuse is, for children, both everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and ungraspable. Lou and Jackie’s lives are pervaded by violence to such an extent that they can’t even really identify themselves as the victims. At one point Lou says that her father conscripts others into his killing. That’s both a plot device and a metaphor for how in many ways the worst thing that parents can do to queer kids is to make them hate themselves. (A survey conducted by the Trevor Project in 2023 found that a horrific 41% of LGBTQ youth between 13 and 24 had contemplated suicide in the previous year.)

In this context, Jackie’s bodybuilding is presented as an ambivalent expression of her feelings about her body and herself. Her obsessive workouts and her escalating steroid use are framed as a kind of self-punishment, pumping herself into a cycle of rage and violence. It’s also, though, an embrace of strength, of gender nonconformity and of empowerment.

Similarly, Lou imitating her father in certain ways (most notably by picking up that standard phallic symbol, the gun) either means she cannot escape his control, or that she has pushed him aside. Children get their ideas of strength, of autonomy and of loving themselves from their parents. That means that becoming autonomous and strong is to become like your parents—an extremely difficult truth to struggle with if your parents are abusive.

David Lynch’s 1992 film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” abandons realism and linear narrative to try to convey the impossible horror and violence of child abuse. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s 2022 “Everything Everywhere All At Once” famously has to explore an escalating array of alternate earths in order to find one in which a mother can figure out how to love her queer daughter. Similarly, “Love Lies Bleeding” takes a turn to the surreal in its effort to cut through the knot of repetitive trauma at the core of its narrative. Empowerment and escape are so difficult, and so glorious, that they unhinge the bleak grit of noir crime and push open a path to something that looks like a superhero film, or a myth.

That’s an imaginative and brave choice by writers Rose Glass and Weronika Tofilska, even if it doesn’t feel entirely convincing. It’s difficult to confront just how much power parents have over children, and just how often that power is horribly abused when it comes to queer children. “Love Lies Bleeding” will hopefully open the way for more filmmakers to look at the way parental love can be a knife and to tell the stories of those who we allow to be cut.

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