2023, NR, 97 min. Directed by Georgia Oakley. Starring Rosie McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday.
REVIEWED By Alejandra Martinez, Fri., July 21, 2023
Jean (McEwen) is afraid. As a lesbian in late 1980s Newcastle in England's industrial North East, she is constantly hiding herself from her professional peers at the school she works at and her family, fearful of the consequences of being fully known. However, Jean has a found family, too, made up of other queer women including her girlfriend Viv (Hayes). Viv's the complete opposite of Jean: proudly out and fearless about her sexuality. When Lois (Halliday), a new student, comes into Jean’s PE class and then shows up at the lesbian bar Jean frequents with her friends, she will have to reckon with her double life and face the possibility of being outed in an increasingly conservative and homophobic society.
The tension between the consequences and the potential of living an authentic, queer life is at the heart of Blue Jean, British writer/director Georgia Oakley’s stunning debut feature. Throughout the film, we see Jean’s life as a closeted PE teacher and out at the lesbian bar with her friends. We also, like Jean, hear about the ways in which Margaret Thatcher’s government is trying to ban teaching acceptance of LGBTQ people in school curriculums. In fuzzy radio news readings and TV segments watched by Jean and her co-workers in a hushed break room, the homophobic proposals and sentiments wash over us. Microaggressions from colleagues and even family members send a clear message to Jean about her sexuality. This is a small, but essential part of the movie: replicating the casual and systemic homophobia and prejudice that queer folks, closeted and out, had to contend with at the time (and still do). It grounds us in Jean’s very real circumstances and helps us understand her fear, and her actions as the film unravels.
Aside from its smart writing and grounding in real-world stakes, Blue Jean also has courageous performances. McEwen as Jean is exquisitely torn, giving an impressively internal performance that eventually spills over. Jean is a complicated person who stumbles on the road to self-acceptance. With every glance, every cautious look, every tear shed, McEwen makes her a believable and compelling person to watch. Halliday as Lois, the new student that forces Jean to think about the possibilities of being out, is remarkable. Harnessing teen angst and vulnerability, she brings something raw and tender to Lois. Rounding out the main players is Hayes as Viv, brash and bold, but gentle too. Viv loves Jean but also challenges her to be better, be more brave, if not for herself, then for Lois. Hayes portrays Viv with real courage and tenderness, too, making the chemistry and affection she shares with McEwen believably grounded and sensual.
History seems bound to repeat itself, with more and more homophobic and transphobic sentiments and legislation on the rise in the U.S. and the UK. In this context, Blue Jean feels more essential and more real. It’s a stunning debut worth seeking out, a reminder of what has passed and what is rearing its ugly head once again, and a statement about the necessity of queer joy and solidarity.