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Review: ‘Ahead of the Curve’ celebrates lesbian triumph while trying to find new purpose in uncertain times

A group of women marching on a sunny day
Franco Stevens, center, attends Dyke March 2019 in a scene from the documentary “Ahead of the Curve.”
(Frankly Speaking Films / Together Films)

The true story of how Deneuve magazine — later renamed Curve — was able to launch in 1990 is as outlandish as the best urban legends.

When banks refused to lend Franco Stevens, then a 20-something lesbian, money to finance the venture, she took a gamble on her future. Stevens applied for multiple credit cards, cashed them all out, then hit the horse tracks. Her winning streak earned her enough money to get her lesbian lifestyle magazine off the ground.

Stevens’ legacy is the subject of “Ahead of the Curve,” a glossy documentary directed by Jen Rainin (Franco’s wife) and co-directed and produced by Rivkah Beth Medow. Told through a mix of archival footage and new interviews with Stevens, early members of the Deneuve/Curve staff and some celesbians, the film shows how vital Stevens and the long-running magazine were for lesbian visibility and community from the beginning.

These glimpses into the past that provide historical context to Stevens’ and the magazine’s journey are among “Ahead of the Curve’s” most compelling moments. With the evolution and prevalence of LGBTQ representation in mainstream media today, when various major brands unveil rainbow iterations of their logos and products just for Pride month, it’s easy to forget that the landscape was very different 30 years ago.

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Deneuve first hit newsstands when just putting the word “lesbian” on the cover was revolutionary. At a time when societal views and public policy were hostile to the LGBTQ community, Deneuve/Curve let lesbians see themselves as vibrant and beautiful human beings who come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes reflecting a range of stories and experiences all worth embracing. And although the film celebrates the magazine’s impact, staffers also reflect on its past shortcomings, such as not being inclusive enough when it came to featuring Black and brown lesbians.

As its fourth and maybe final season ends Friday, “Wynonna Earp” deserves credit for refusing to “bury its gays” — and turning anxiety into comfort.

And Curve’s success was not without hardships. The magazine’s original name landed it in legal trouble. Later, Stevens suffered an accident, which led her to sell the magazine. (Since filming the documentary, Stevens has reacquired Curve and launched a new foundation.)

Woven through “Ahead of the Curve,” which opens with Stevens receiving the news that Curve’s future as a print magazine is in peril, is an exploration of where queer women stand in the present. Through conversations with younger activists, Stevens confronts the tough question of whether there is even a need for a lesbian print magazine in this digital age.

The documentary also briefly touches on the standing of the word “lesbian” among queer women. As the language people use to discuss their own identity has evolved, some have come to perceive the label as outdated or, worse, exclusionary. Others embrace the identity as empowering and refuse to let “lesbian” be co-opted by a vocal minority who exclude trans women from their ranks. It’s a discussion that deserves more space than the film can provide.

While “Ahead of the Curve” doesn’t offer any solid answers, it does make the case that understanding lesbian history should be a key part in assessing the future. Poet and educator Denice Frohman, who is among those Stevens meets in the film, sums it up best: “It’s so incredibly important for us to be connected to our lineage to those who came before us … those who walked through a door and cracked it open wider so that we could walk through it after them.”

“Ahead of the Curve” honors that lineage and Stevens’ legacy while reaffirming that there is still more work to be done for lesbian visibility and representation that is inclusive of all queer women.

'Ahead of the Curve'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Available June 1 on VOD and Laemmle Virtual Cinema; screenings with Q&A, 7:30 p.m., June 1, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; 7:30 p.m., June 2, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; 7:30 p.m., June 3, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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