Steam is not a complicated film, in spite of the pseudo-complicated lives of its characters. It traces the trajectories of three female characters for a short while, seeming to span roughly six months, give or take a season. Laurie (Ally Sheedy), a divorced and bitter single mother; Doris (Ruby Dee), an elderly recent widow; and Elizabeth (Kate Siegel), a college student with a burgeoning lesbian sexual identity are brought together by chance to a sweaty respite: the steam room of their local health club.
Strangers to one another at first, they come to share small pieces of themselves as they bask in the heat, for those moments free to drop their burdens at the door and let their troubles pour out of them with their sweat. They are expunged, cleansed, baptized by the steam. The second time this flat visual metaphor is used, we were tired of it. By the fifteenth time, we were just plain annoyed. Steam from a sewer grate as Laurie shares what may be the first kiss since her divorce; steam from a bubbling pot as Doris prepares dinner for the new man in her life; steam from her cold breath mingling with her date’s lazy cigarette smoke as Elizabeth meets up with Niala (Reshma Shetty) on their first night together. Replace steam with a bottle of wine or a vibrator and Schickner may have been onto something more poetic.
Outside the steam room, we go deeper into each woman’s personal life through rotating vignettes that follow a predictable pattern. First we meet the characters as they are: disempowered and just existing, without agency. Things seem to improve for each for each of them, then quickly become much worse in sync, until each woman comes back around to find herself again at a new equilibrium. Ready to face the next challenge, they will overcome with their newly acquired storybook feminist outlook. The film narrowly imagines what a woman’s “drama” can be like, offering only tropes in the place of true complexity. To follow one character only and really develop her, or to condense the full length into a short piece would have generated the tension Schickner tries to create with overly broad strokes. The film should be driven by its narrative, but this contrived narrative is weak and can’t live up to its own expectations fully.
Steam puts forth some strong messages by way of its women: queer, sex-positive, and age-positive themes that are always welcome and so often lacking from today’s big budget blockbusters. Chelsea Handler holds what’s left of the film together by a thread with her bit supporting role, providing comic relief as the wise-cracking counterpart to Sheedy’s self-deprecating Laurie. Steam is like a sauna, nice at first but if you stay in too long you might start to get prickly and irritated, or just really tired.