“I don’t have a heart of gold, and I don’t grow one later,” says Dedee Truitt (Christina Ricci) in her acerbic opening narration to Don Roos’ directorial debut The Opposite of Sex, released 25 years ago this week. Like a lot of what Dedee says, this assertion can’t be trusted, and all of Dedee’s protests about her unlikability sound increasingly disingenuous as she opens herself up to the people in her life, while making feints at pushing them away. Roos and Ricci allow Dedee to be unpleasant and offensive without turning her into a villain — at least depending on the audience’s tolerance for pseudo-satirical homophobia.
Roos, who’s gay himself, walks a fine line in The Opposite of Sex that wouldn’t be possible in a modern movie without inviting social media outcry and ironic support from the exact people the movie is meant to oppose. A mean, manipulative, foul-mouthed teenager from small-town Louisiana, Dedee leaves home following the death of her hated stepfather and shows up unannounced at the suburban Indiana home of her comparatively sedate half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan). Bill is a soft-spoken high school English teacher approaching middle age, but he’s also openly gay in the Midwest, which makes him an easy target for insults and attacks, many of which come directly from Dedee.
Dedee would probably characterize herself as an equal-opportunity misanthrope, and she lashes out at Bill as much out of resentment for his seemingly comfortable life as out of any distaste for his sexual orientation. That doesn’t excuse the rampant homophobic slurs, of course, but in 1998 there was genuine shock value in filmmakers like Roos proudly retaking those terms, and The Opposite of Sex is working in a more mainstream version of a tradition established by queer filmmakers like John Waters and Gregg Araki.
Roos expresses his point of view not through the often defiantly naive Dedee, but through a fiery speech that Bill delivers late in the movie to sniveling blackmailer Jason Bock (Johnny Galecki), detailing the horrors he endured during the preceding decades so that younger gay men like Jason could grow up with the freedom to be self-centered assholes.
In its own sometimes clumsy way, The Opposite of Sex is also an early depiction of sexual fluidity, although it eventually shies away from its potential embrace of bisexuality and asexuality. Dedee’s main act of disruption is her determination to seduce Bill’s younger boyfriend Matt Mateo (Ivan Sergei), who proves remarkably open to sleeping with an underage girl despite his avowed homosexuality. Matt later comes out as bisexual, but the movie is quick to dismiss this revelation, with the outdated notion that only gay men ever claim to be bisexual.
Even more intriguing is the hint that Bill’s friend and co-worker Lucia DeLury (Lisa Kudrow), sister of his late boyfriend Tom, may be asexual. In an often cartoonish movie, Kudrow gives the most sensitive performance as a lonely straight woman who’s poured all of her emotional energy into the lives of gay men, and she expertly plays a scene in which Lucia opens up to Bill about being baffled over the appeal of sexual intercourse. She’s then immediately paired off with a love interest (Lyle Lovett’s friendly cop Carl Tippett), but for a moment Roos expands the spectrum of sexuality that could be depicted in mainstream cinema.
At the time, The Opposite of Sex was more notable for expanding the horizons of Ricci’s career, after her years of work as a child actor. Following her supporting turn in The Ice Storm, this was Ricci’s breakout “adult” role, and part of the movie’s appeal is seeing the onetime Wednesday Addams apply that same sardonic, deadpan disdain to much more mature topics. Ricci makes the most of the spotlight, offering withering putdowns even as she’s offscreen for long stretches. One reason that Dedee’s nastiness is palatable is that Ricci delivers it with such good-natured dismissiveness, and Dedee is rarely truly malicious.
As other characters keep emphasizing, Dedee is a literal child, despite spending much of the movie pregnant with a baby of unclear paternity. She’s an immature brat who enjoys getting a rise out of people, whether her friends and family members or the viewers of the movie. As with so many present-day online trolls, her bigotry is more performative than sincere. She’s adept at stringing the audience along with her narration, playing with expectations for what this kind of movie would entail, and chiding viewers for their susceptibility to common cinematic storytelling devices.
Dedee’s meta-narrative abilities are more sophisticated than her interpersonal skills, and she can never stop straining for edginess. The movie can’t resist that, either, which means that plenty of it now comes across as dated and cringe-worthy. But that’s part of the process of growing up, both for Dedee and for queer representation onscreen. What’s provocative in one decade seems retrograde by the next. Dedee gets her heart of gold, whether she likes it or not, and she passes that maturation forward to the next generation.