The affecting documentary “A Secret Love” offers a window into the lives of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, a lesbian couple who lived for six decades, in public and to kin, as dear friends. Streaming on Netflix, the documentary opens on the women in old age, when Terry’s close niece, Diana, is urging them to enter a nursing home. Pat, gruff but affectionate, is reluctant to make the move.
The documentary is directed by Diana’s son, Chris Bolan, who chronicles this tension from an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective. But as Bolan digs deeper into the couple’s past, we learn that its more engaging dimension is their tie not to blood relatives — who learned of their love only recently — but to the queer chosen family who supported their otherwise secret partnership. In the ’50s and ’60s, Terry and Pat surrounded themselves with gay friends, several of whom they still socialize with and many others who appear in festive home videos. This insight into the women’s community, which the movie situates in a deeply homophobic era, elucidates Pat’s resistance to uprooting the two from their Chicago home. After years of strain, why leave a place they felt safe?
It is a compliment that “A Secret Love,” which runs under an hour and a half, could stand to be longer, with an expanded portrait of Terry and Pat’s early life as a couple. Delightful asides are devoted to Terry’s career as a professional baseball player — a real-life version of “A League of Their Own” — as well as the Chicago they once knew, where they avoided the raids at gay bars by hosting lively parties. The film blossoms during these sequences, when it explores how, in a troubling time, Terry and Pat carved their own space for freedom and bliss.
A Secret Love
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. Watch on Netflix.