In 1990, 23-year-old Frances “Franco” Stevens made a wager. She’d been living out of her car for months, cut off from her family after coming out as a lesbian. A drawn-out divorce with her now ex-husband left her looking to start anew, and seeing that she had nothing to lose, she maxed out her credit cards to bet on two long shots in a horse race.
Stevens had been bouncing around the idea of an overtly lesbian culture magazine, a concept inspired by her time working at a queer bookstore in San Francisco. She simply figured that if her wager paid off, the idea was meant to be. Sure enough, Stevens would soon turn her modest winnings into Deneuve, the most influential magazine made by and for queer women in the world and a cornerstone in LGBTQ+ history and liberation.
It’s in the recounting of this history that “Ahead of the Curve” shines. The documentary follows Stevens and her coworkers as they attempt to find a renewed importance for their now-rebranded and struggling Curve magazine in the modern LGBTQ+ community. The debut of director Jen Rainin, the film assembles old footage as well as contemporary interviews featuring Stevens and her associates. In consulting modern queer activists and giving an account of the magazine’s decorated history, Stevens sets out to gain a better understanding of contemporary queer issues.
Initially, “Ahead of the Curve” may seem rather uncompelling. From its first act’s muddled pacing to the transparently staged conversations it uses as exposition, the documentary certainly takes a while to find its momentum. But with patience, “Ahead of the Curve” eventually reveals its uniquely subtle approach. Between its historical anecdotes, it spins a compelling narrative from fragments of Stevens’ conversations — one that treats its central discussion of queer liberation as an open question.
Admittedly, this approach means the film occasionally raises points of contention without fully resolving them. One scene, for example, sees Stevens affirm the validity of transgender and gender-nonconforming people within the lesbian community, but larger conversations of why these individuals have been historically unrepresented in queer media are disappointingly thin.
At other times, the film retreads what is sure to be familiar material. Incidents such as the “gay wedding cake” controversy are certainly important to cover in the film’s project, but they overstay their necessary screen time and crowd out more novel points of conversation.
With these faults accounted for, however, what remains is a compassionate and honest exploration of what it means to be visible. “Ahead of the Curve” does not presuppose a conclusion but instead allows its central dialogue to evolve organically. It’s in these moments that the film is at its best; the historical recounts are often marvelous and compelling, but the film is most convincing when it doesn’t force a central narrative thread.
The documentary doesn’t entirely embrace this somewhat anecdotal approach, but when it does, there’s a great deal of charm and empathy to be found. “Ahead of the Curve” plays the role of the advocate in its reserved filmic style: The visual and narrative direction may be understated, but this simplicity allows it to better promote both the old and new guard of queer activism. Stevens’ conversations truly are the central focus, and both the film and its central character seem aware that diverse and underrepresented voices are what give the queer community its strength.
In a word, “Ahead of the Curve” is a celebration of the magazine’s past. But it’s also concessionary: The film depicts a Curve that is well aware that it’s past its prime and conscious that the community it serves has drastically evolved. Perhaps Curve is a relic from another era, a dated institution of an obsolete medium. For all of the good it did in its time, it may no longer hold solutions to the questions that the queer community grapples with now. And yet, it may also be true that Curve can revive its own relevance and provide a platform for the voices that do hold these answers.
Which of these perspectives it favors, “Ahead of the Curve” declines to say. But for the queer women at its center, there’s comfort in knowing that whatever happens to their magazine, their community is in good hands.