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66th BFI London Film Festival: Blue Jean

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

When watching films at the festival, you sometimes find yourself having to pick and choose which films you’re going to watch, cause you might not get another chance before the wide release. Sometimes you go into them knowing little about them, but your schedule just works out so that you’ll be free for it. On a good day, that’ll be how you discover something truly special. Between high-profile releases Bones and All and The Wonder, a little indie drama snuck in and stole the headliner’s thunder. Blue Jean may have been the lowest profile of the day’s three releases, but it was by no means the least of them, managing to be by turns upsetting, romantic, funny, deeply powerful and ultimately inspiring. It can be a tough watch and despite being set almost forty years ago, it hits distressingly close to home today, but it’s all the more precious and profound for that.

For those that need filling in on the background (though the film does a serviceable enough job of that itself) Section 28 was a clause brought into British law in 1988 (and remained until 2003!) prohibiting the “promotion of homosexual lifestyles” by local government officials, including schoolteachers. The rhetoric used by the clause’s supporters is depressingly familiar. It’s the same stuff you hear from people today lobbying to tear back hard-won rights of trans people, arguing they might “confuse” children otherwise. Today it’s trans people, but back then they were using the exact same arguments against gays and lesbians to keep them in the closet.

Blue Jean is set against this backdrop. Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a gym teacher at a Northern comprehensive school. She’s recently come out to herself and her family but is forced to keep life with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and her other lesbian friends a secret from her class and fellow teachers. This uneasy double life slowly begins collapsing in on her when Lois (Lucy Halliday), a lonely and bullied fifteen-year-old girl from the school netball team, walks into Jean’s favorite lesbian hangout.

Lois is coming apart, being relentlessly bullied for her sexuality, she’s becoming increasingly hostile and dysfunctional. She’s going to end up in real trouble if someone doesn’t intervene. She urgently needs, and is actively demanding, the kind of mentorship that Section 28 explicitly forbids Jean to provide. So much as coming out to her class, acknowledging that Lois and others like her are not alone and providing them with a positive queer role model could cost Jean her job, fostering a lot of personal shame and guilt in her as she wrestles with her responsibility to help Lois and her desire to hold onto the fragile life she’s built for herself.

Blue Jean is just great. Yes, it’s exactly the film we needed right now, but moreover, it just does it so well. It embraces the fullness of lesbian experience, the joys and the pains society forces onto them. It wrestles with the tragedy homophobia wreaks and revels in the euphoria of killing the homophobe in oneself. It’s patient, thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous to look at, the cinematography is wonderful, impeccably acted by the cast, young and grown alike. McEwen is fantastic, giving a performance of real expressiveness and vulnerability, I hope we see more from her soon and Halliday is a real find as well! The whole film has such a simple sense of retro flair and feminine style that’s so intoxicating it often feels like watching a horror film. The constant fear of accusation or exposure is frequently as hair-raising as it is heart-breaking and the film walks that tightrope beautifully without ever becoming remotely exploitative. There are pitches of intensity here that a lesser film would make feel histrionic or soapy, but director Georgia Oakley and her cast judge their boundaries so well and commit so completely, that not for a second do you find yourself drawn out of the film or second guessing it.

It’s painful how relevant this film is but exhilarating to see it make its argument so candidly and gracefully. It’s especially exciting to have a film come along that feels like it really has something to contribute to the conversation and like it absolutely gets to the heart of its issues in a way few others do, but which is also just so darned dramatic, moving and gripping to watch. It’s uncomfortable in every way it should be while still being tender, wholesome and romantic by giving you perfectly realized characters to fall in love with.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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