The Film That Changed My Life

"Carol" helps me make sense of my identity, my desires, and my waiting.

by Imogen Russell

Names have been changed.

I was 12. She was 14. 

I’m 17 now, and two years doesn’t seem like such a big gap, but at the end of that summer Thea was going into high school while I was still a middle schooler. We met on a production of Little Women at a theater camp on Long Island, New York. In after-school plays, I was often cast as an old woman or a boy, and this time I played Aunt March. Thea played Jo, the writer and tomboy heroine. 

Soon, Thea and I were skipping class to hang out. She told me about her crush. I asked her about the girl, what she liked about her, what she didn’t. Thea called her crush in front of me, and I’d watch and imagine a grainy image of a girl giggling at Thea’s jokes. 

Thea put on a smooth, cool persona with the girl; when she got off the phone, she seemed distant from me. I wondered if I had any impact on her mood; sometimes I thought she wished she could stay on the phone all day. I wanted her to spend time with me.

After camp ended, Thea and I talked on the phone twice a week. We both lived in New York City, but we never followed through on plans to meet up again. Every time she called me, I sat on the floor behind my bed, my voice quiet in the little cave I created.  

Six months after camp ended, I said, “Hey, I have something kind of important to tell you.” 

“OK, what is it?”  

A long silence. I had just looked this up, but was it even true? I began to doubt myself. But I worked up my courage; I knew she would listen. “I think I’m bi.” 

“Really?” Then she said, “I think I’m gay.” 

I was surprised. I knew that she liked the girl she called from camp, but recently, she had been obsessed with a boy: tall, brown hair, liked some of the music she did. 

This was the last time we ever called each other. Had we revealed too much too quickly? We’d actually only known each other in person for four weeks, then talked on the phone for six months. Looking back, I felt that I had missed out on telling her how I felt: I liked her, and she made me feel a way that no one else had. 

I often texted her to check in, but whatever happened that day seemed to change our friendship. She would sometimes respond, sometimes not. She had moved on. 

Filmmaker, Noticer

My parents run a theater company, and I grew up acting. I chose an arts-focused high school, but I didn’t get into the theater program there. I did get into the film program, and instead of performing for the camera, I found myself behind it. 

I started to see reflections of myself in movie characters: Sally in When Harry Met Sally; Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and more recently in both hopeless romantics in Fallen Leaves. I also found myself noticing more details around me, processing the world through images, which I worked into my student films. While heading into my junior year, I’d learned enough to call myself a filmmaker and writer. 

These self-definitions, however, were scraps of a much bigger picture of my identity, which I hadn’t quite figured out. Who was I? I knew filmmaker, writer, daughter, friend, but not much about my sexual or romantic self.  

Overall, there was confusion and dissonance, a gap between who I claimed to like and who I actually did like. I usually talked about boys to my friends. But I seemed to be waiting for something else. I had never told anyone, for example, about Thea. 

I found more information about who I was and what I liked in images than in crushes. At an improv class when I was 13 my eyes lingered on a rainbow pin attached to the jean jacket of a freshman who was confident and queer. I was reminded of that summer with Thea. 

Resonating with that rainbow pin felt like the moment that my intuition about myself became recognition.

I started to explore how I wanted to be seen. I saw how other LGBTQ+ people used identifiers, and I tried on heavy-duty Doc Martens, flannel shirts, and high-waisted pants. In the years since I started dressing more masculine, I’ve been complimented on my androgyny. I’ve also heard “I would kill for your style”; “academia”; and “Wes Anderson character.” I was finding myself through style, and people were noticing. 

But I hesitated to announce any identity. What if it changes? What if I have to re-come out again? Making some kind of statement would close off that questioning, and I wasn’t sure yet.

Carol

When I was 14, I saw Todd Haynes’s 2014 movie Carol (available on Netflix through March 20). I watched it at home, mostly because of Cate Blanchett. I had discovered Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8 and dragged my family to see it three different times in the theater when I was in 7th grade. (Hmm, maybe a queer sign?) 

Carol takes place in the winter of 1951-52. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young department store employee, becomes entranced with Carol Aird (Blanchett), a closeted wife and mother, when they lock eyes in the store at Christmas time. They start a friendship that is charged with longing and love, but for most of the movie unconsummated. 

Carol’s husband hires a detective who tapes Carol and Therese together the first time they have sex. He then sues for sole custody of their daughter, using a “morality clause” to deem Carol an unfit mother. To keep her child, Carol breaks it off with Therese. But Carol then makes a courageous move that opens the door to a possibility of a future with Therese. 

I found myself looking up a Christmas music playlist afterwards, wanting to linger in the world of the film. I decided I needed to see the movie again, and again. I’ve now seen it 22 times, and counting.

The second time, I felt myself in it, which is why I kept rewatching. The rainbow pin had flashed a message to me about myself. But Carol was the first piece of narrative media that reflected both my desires and my uncertainty. 

Therese, the wide-eyed, 20-year-old girl played by Rooney Mara, was curious, but cut off, worldly but inexperienced. Like me, she studied the world and noticed small details. I saw my impatience for love in Therese’s longing for Carol. 

But what most resonated is that she was waiting

I keep watching “Carol” because I am waiting for an answer. How are they going to live their lives? How should I live mine?

After Therese said to Carol, “I miss you…I miss you” in the film, I replayed my last conversation with Thea. I wondered if it was not Thea I missed, but the dawning realization of my sexuality, which I had shared with only her. This wasn’t a direct parallel: Thea wasn’t Carol, but Therese’s awakening helped mine come into focus.

After that, I watched Carol at least twice a month. I would process it differently each time. I often heard the score in my head as I got ready for bed and as I woke up in the morning. It became a part of my life. 

What Happens Next?

In the last scene, Therese walks into the elegant Oak Room bar at New York’s famous  Plaza Hotel, searching for Carol, who is sitting at a table with two men and a woman. Standing alone, Therese scans the room with terrified and jittery emotion. Then the two make eye contact. Carol smiles, and Therese smiles back. Cut to black, right in the middle of a musical phrase. 

Therese’s eyes in the final scene, filled with so much emotion, including relief, calm my soul. Carol’s smile softens as she looks at Therese, seeming grateful for the courage it took for Therese to show up and look at her so lovingly. Carol’s and Therese’s faces tell so much without words, which fits well with my new, inchoate feelings.

We never see what happens after. Do they leave the Oak Room together? Will they live “happily ever after”? 

I keep watching Carol because I am waiting for an answer. How are they going to live their lives? How should I live mine? The way I think about romance always comes back to Carol. I am waiting for what comes next. 

My struggles are not those of Carol and Therese. I don’t have to risk everything like they did to be openly queer in 2024. But I am scared of how this country is attacking the LGBTQ+ community. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is part of a political movement to empower homophobia and transphobia and try to erase queer kids and adults. Although the world is more progressive now than in the 1950s, it is still hard to accept yourself fully when so many people call what you are wrong or sick.

I have struggled to feel authentically myself since I realized I like girls. I think that’s why I hid behind the bed when I talked to Thea. In some ways, I’m still hiding. Perhaps the rainbow flag and my queer clothing choices are placeholders for a part of myself that I cannot come to terms with yet. 

I put the bisexual label on at 13 years old, but I’m not sure that’s accurate for me anymore. I remembered my last conversation with Thea: I was surprised that she came out as a lesbian because she had talked a lot about one guy. My image of being gay was shifted by her, as I put together that I could find guys physically attractive and not want to date them. 

Carol gives voice to my lingering uncertainty about who I am and also makes me feel the best is yet to come. 

I know that my story isn’t done, and there are still many questions left. I have a vision of romance that Todd Haynes’ film has bolstered, but I don’t have much experience. Carol paints a picture of love worth waiting for.

Imogen Russell is a senior at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. She enjoys traveling, reading, swimming, and going to restaurants around the city. She plans to pursue filmmaking and writing. 

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