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AH, TO BE young and in love and living in the back of a bookstore in Vancouver. Such is the current state of affairs for 19-year-old Maggie (Karyn Dwyer), whose blissfully bohemian existence is interrupted one day by an early morning phone call from her mother, checking in from deep in the heart of suburbia.

There are a couple of things Maggie has neglected to tell Mom thus far. One is that she has dropped out of college; the other is that she's a lesbian. The first item is a bit more pressing at the moment, thanks to a letter from the university administration spilling the beans to the folks at home. The second revelation will have to wait a while longer. Much longer, if Maggie has any say in the matter.

Mum has news, too. For starters, she has divorced Dad after learning about his yearlong infidelities. She's also heading to Vancouver with Maggie's younger brother for a visit of indefinite length -- which obliges Maggie to move quickly and actually secure the wonderful apartment she claims to inhabit.

Luckily, the local gay paper directs her to a picturesque warehouse loft being sublet by a perky safe-sex instructor who'll be out of town for a while: plenty of room for a mother, brother, and brand-new lover Kim (Christina Cox), a portrait artist whose last home was an illegally parked hand-painted van. Not only is the new place fully furnished, it's also well-stocked with what we'll call the tools of the safe-sex trade. It's only a matter of time before Ma will discover that enticing toy box beneath the bed and learn firsthand about the one thing "Better Than Chocolate."

Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps you would prefer to let screenwriter Peggy Thompson and director Anne Wheeler tell the story at their own pace: 110 minutes packed with narrow-minded book censors and wide-eyed "omnisexuals" on the prowl, homophobic skinheads, well-intentioned bigots and one love-struck transsexual struggling to be accepted as a woman. This last subplot-catalyst -- Judy's the name -- is the film's most interesting character, and actor Peter Outerbridge is one of the few cast members able to make his role something more like a recognizable, multidimensional human being and less like a stock type from sitcom land.

Others are less fortunate, such as Anne-Marie MacDonald as repressed bookstore owner Frances, the ice-cold object of Judy's affections who comes complete with horn-rimmed glasses, and Wendy Crewson as Mom, a classic pre-feminist housewife who wears pearls while cleaning and thinks Maggie's job at Ten Percent Books means her daughter is working at a discount shop.

While no one would deny that such creatures actually do walk the earth, the problem here is that they don't do much but fuel the farce machinery and illustrate various political principles along the way. Even Judy falls prey to the latter syndrome; mere minutes after singing the touching ballad "I'm Not a #@*&@*% Drag Queen" during her nightclub routine, she encounters a belligerent drunken woman who thinks no one but biological females has any business in the ladies' room. The scene -- which is not played for laughs, by any means -- is as heavy-handed as they come.

On the other hand, it's hard to name another movie that confronts such all-too-real prejudice within the gay and lesbian community, awkwardly or otherwise. And audiences who have long complained that most film portrayals of same-sex relationships manage to leave out the sex will be pleasantly surprised by the heat generated between Kim and Maggie in their quest for privacy in the crowded household. In short, this "Chocolate" isn't bad for you, it's just not particularly tasty -- the latest in a seemingly bottomless box of flavorless morsels of gay life at the end of the century.

Better Than Chocolate

Rating: ***

Canadian romantic comedy about a young lesbian woman and her recently divorced mother.

Starring Wendy Crewson and Karyn Dwyer. Written by Peggy Thompson, directed by Anne Wheeler, above.

Rated R, opens today at the Angelika Theater.

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