The neo-noir was a genre closely identified with the ‘90s. By 1998, though, neo-noirs were a dime a dozen, with directors and screenwriters trying numerous ways to infuse something new into their takes; many tended to up the salaciousness factor in the hopes that titillation would bring in audiences. But in the case of Don Roos’ little-seen film The Opposite of Sex, the noir pokes fun at small-town America. The rubes closely identified with “right” and “goodness” in 1940 are seen here as boring and hypocritical, and all of them fall under the spell of 16-year-old Dede Truitt, played by Christina Ricci. The role was a new direction for child star Ricci, reshaping her persona as it celebrated the noir-ish femme fatale audiences love to hate. It’s worth taking a second look in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary.
If Wild Things was a trashy take on Double Indemnity, then The Opposite of Sex is an even trashier take on the countless noirs made in Double Indemnity’s wake. Small-town Indiana is presented as an idyllic place littered with homophobia, particularly when a series of scandals leaves Dede’s brother, Bill (Martin Donovan), accused of a crime. There’s a sense of rigidity and oppression from the society outside the confines of Bill’s home, like the Blockbuster employee interviewed for a TV news piece declaring how “family” they are. Dede is the only character aware of how horrible people are, and she works under the adage of “kill or be killed.” In fact, as much trouble as Dede causes, she becomes a catalyst for reinvigoration. As Bill and his girl Friday, Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), go on their cross-country trip to find her, Dede says, “They’ve never had this much fun in their life.” Her character acts as both a wake-up call for bursting out of one’s bubble, as well as acknowledging the role of the femme fatale; the audience might be told to hate her, but she’s too much fun.
Noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s reveled in their blonde villainesses whose hearts were often as cool as their affect. Dede is introduced as white trash, of that there’s no doubt. She’s a bottle-blonde teenage troublemaker from Crevecoeur, La., who knowingly engages in homophobic humor to make the people around her uncomfortable. She thrives on Bill and his friends believing she’s stupid in a way no different from male noir characters of the past believing the women in their lives were lesser than them.
Dede also uses men as a means of climbing up the ladder, but refuses to concede control to them. Bill may be the first one to open up his home to her, but Dede only sees him as the first in a series of stepping stones. Her first mark, Bill’s boyfriend Matt (Ivan Sergei), is described as the “beautiful, dumb one” in contrast to Dede, who everyone merely assumes is dumb. Matt becomes Dede’s ticket to California, providing an influx of cash and legitimacy for her child. With him she’s in control, but the arrival of her ex-boyfriend, Randy (William Lee Scott), is where Dede’s playing of men threatens to become her undoing. But even though Randy is the first man to provide a physical impediment to Dede — assaulting her at one point — Dede’s luck (or skill) gets her out of the scrape and leaves Randy dead.
But where Dede sends up the femme fatale best is in her unrepentant lifestyle and how the movie rewards her for it. As she says in the film’s opening, “I don’t have a heart of gold, and I don’t grow one later.” She isn’t lying. Where most classic noirs, and even several neo-noirs, end with the femme fatale dying, The Opposite of Sex lives up to its title. In the film’s 90-minute runtime she lies, schemes, betrays, and murders someone before leaving her baby with Bill and going off into the wind. Dede’s one moment of honesty comes from knowing who she is and telling the audience that in the beginning. She doesn’t change who she is, and in fact is able to start fresh with no impediments and the money needed to start over.
In a way, her character owes its lie to the likes of Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory in the 1994 neo-noir The Last Seduction. Each woman holds more commonality to male heroes of the noir movement than femme fatales, each able to shape their lives based on how the wheel of fate turns for them. But where noir protagonists are often cursing the heavens for how their lives have turned out, Dede gets one over on them. She succeeds because the people around her see her as just a girl, and that is their undoing.
The Opposite of Sex is also a declaration of independence for its leading lady. By 1998 Ricci had said goodbye to her child star image, closing the chapter with the lead role in Disney’s 1997 remake of That Darn Cat. The Opposite of Sex is where Ricci stands on her own two feet, carrying the film to brilliance. There’s a mean-spiritedness to the character, one that serves the cold, calculating villain Ricci is nurturing. She’d finish out the year in smaller roles or cameos, underscoring how vital Dede is to Ricci’s transition to adult stardom.
The Opposite of Sex is a quirky film, unclear as to whether it wants to be satirical or straightforward in its comedy, black in tone or strictly humor. What can’t be denied is how Christina Ricci and Don Roos reconfigure the femme fatale for a new era, one where women can blaze a trail of destruction and saunter off into the sunset.