THE STORY – 1988. Closeted PE teacher Jean leads a double life. When a new student arrives and threatens to expose her sexuality, Jean is pushed to extreme lengths to hold onto her job and her integrity.
THE CAST – Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes & Lucy Halliday
THE TEAM – Georgia Oakley (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Whoever said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” sure was onto something. I’ll never forget watching celebrations erupt in the streets after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015 (when I was just 16 years old) and naively thought to myself, “Wow, that’s it – we did it.” Now, flash forward eight years later, and wars are once again being waged against vulnerable queer communities across the country through Tennessee’s proposed “anti-drag” law, numerous states’ restrictions on gender-affirming care for trans youth, and even more malicious legislation that hasn’t even been brought into realization yet. And unfortunately, for many, this isn’t any “new” terror, especially as conservatives pull from the playbook of the cruelty of the 80s and 90s and use the same sadistic methods of hate and harm, simply with a fresh coat of callous paint. It’s merely a reminder of what’s always existed and what always will exist – the ever-exhausting queerphobia that threatens to snuff out our shine for the entirety of our lives.
But this is not just a U.S. issue either. Across the pond, our friends in England know this same social strife all too well after living under the relentlessly antagonistic administration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, among many other malevolent things, instituted the infamous Section 28 legislation that “prohibited the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, coming down on organizations (and individuals) in schools first and foremost and causing many individuals to lose their jobs (and potentially, even their lives). And that’s where we find the titular Jean of “Blue Jean” (Rosy McEwen), a lesbian PE teacher at a secondary school in Newcastle in 1988 who remains reserved and closeted during the day but spends her evenings at a local gay bar with her friends and girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and puts significant time and energy into the maintenance of this double life, for her sanity’s (and safety’s) sake. But all it takes to ruin it is one closeted student – a new girl named Lois (Lucy Halliday) – who spots Jean with her friends when sneaking into the local bars. Although this sight is a source of comfort for her, it’s a potential life-ending liability for Jean, who is driven to the point of madness trying to keep her from broadcasting these secrets to the school and threatening all the balance she’s worked so hard to bring about.
Writer-director Georgia Oakley has been shooting and scripting award-winning shorts for years now, but “Blue Jean” is her debut feature film, and thankfully, it was worth the wait. Not only are the themes of her creative vision so crisp and so clear – with her social commentary on Section 28 and other homophobic policies and practices in England integrated considerately into the story so as to never overshadow the characters and relationships she’s so carefully cultivated too – but her actual craftwork is equally engrossing, exemplified by her delicate direction and chilling shot compositions. It’s hard to believe this really is only a debut, given how accomplished and assured she seems behind the camera, bringing a thematic and technical maturity to the movie that many only develop over their first few films. But Oakley has arrived fully formed, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her sturdy, stirring script, which confronts the complications and complexities that come with living a queer life under homophobic regimes with staggeringly stark honesty (including the unfortunately insidious lengths some will go to to keep their secrets, including Jean) in order to show just how much these policies upended our lives inside and out and turned us into the very thing the conservatives said we were: monsters (even if just for a “bit”). But the full realization of these artistic intentions lies in the person playing Jean, and in Rosy McEwen, Oakley found a titanic talent.
An initially subtle performance – one characterized by queer silence and camouflage in predominantly heterosexual situations and spaces – slowly gives way to something far more frosty and complex as the story goes on. McEwen’s intense and unrelenting engagement with this multidimensional material makes her arc feel so authentic and accurate, as tragic as certain plot turns may be as she attempts to stop the potential formation of a friendship between herself and Lois every chance she gets. Watching some of the harmful choices Jean makes (both for herself and others) is harrowing. Still, because Oakley so thoroughly roots her script in blistering believability, it always – agonizingly – rings true. The power of McEwen’s poignant performance lends credulity to every choice too. The other two primary players, Hayes and Halliday, are nearly just as affecting, with Hayes’ Viv representing Jean’s ideal existence (the “confident queer” who has accepted themselves and their life no matter what the world says or does) and Halliday’s Lois standing in for a younger Jean, or maybe who she is today as well (as much as Jean hates to admit it). And together, the three make this tense tug-of-war between safety and emotional/existential satisfaction a maddening yet ultimately marvelously moving experience, delivering on Georgia Oakley’s goals with the piece and providing us with one of the most wrenching works of queer fiction in film in years.