Synopsis: In 1988, a closeted teacher is pushed to the brink when a new student threatens to expose her sexuality.
Stars: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lydia Page, Lucy Halliday, Stacy Abalogun, Deka Walmsley, Gavin Kitchen, Farrah Cave, Amy Booth-Steel, Lainey Shaw, Aoife Kennan, Scott Turnbull
Director: Georgia Oakley
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though Pride month may be over, it’s crucial not only to keep looking ahead at the future of those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community and protecting inalienable rights for all but to understand the history of how we got to where we are today. Battles have been fought, and many lives have been lost in the struggle for acceptance, and it’s on the shoulders, backs, and necks of brave individuals that we stand stronger than ever. It hasn’t been easy, though, and sometimes it’s vital to remember small victories of inner courage or frustrating losses that aren’t memorialized in plaques on bars.
While a work of fiction, it isn’t hard to imagine Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean as a story several people could relate to while living in Britain in the late ’80s. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which introduced Section 28, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality by localized authority figures. This led to many formal support systems for the LGBT communities to close and forbade normalized discussion of it in schools, stranding those needing guidance at difficult times.
That’s where we find PE teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen), a closeted woman who leads a double life. By day she’s a well-liked (if aloof) educator at a local school, and in the evenings, she’s often with her vibrant girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and their equally out and proud friends. Yet Jean is still coming to terms with who she is, barely out of the closet after ending a heterosexual marriage and definitely not out to any of her school co-workers. To do so would risk losing her position when the country was already suffering an economic downturn.
Problems start when shy new student Lois (Lucy Halliday) arrives, and Jean can’t help but sense a familiarity that urges her to attempt to bring her out of her shell. Encouraging the teen to join the netball (similar to our basketball) team, she’s hopeful she can stave off any torment for Lois by helping her find her way with the cliquey girls. Then she sees Lois at her late-night gay bar, and Jean’s two worlds collide instantly, unable to ever be separated again. With one student knowing her secret, Jean begins to question each move Lois makes, affecting her relationship with Viv, her family, and her co-workers. How long can she wear two masks without revealing the real woman underneath?
There’s a lot of sorrow to be had in Blue Jean, but thankfully, Oakley doesn’t focus on the pain that stems from the time or the situation Jean finds herself in. Instead, she casts an actress like McEwen, who turns in a sensitive but unwaveringly bold performance that allows viewers to sympathize with but never pity. Much of the rough road Jean travels on is of her own making, and we grimace every time she walks away from a hand outstretched to help her to a smoother path. You can see in McEwen’s performance that Jean wants to be happy but doesn’t know how to achieve the correct result. Happiness comes with experience, and she’s too new to know but scared to try again. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s real.
McEwen’s getting the lion’s share of praise (rightfully so, I might add), but you can’t ignore that Hayes is also giving a kind of miracle performance. Viv is the antithesis of Jean, and that’s likely why they would make a great couple, but Viv also deserves someone that will be there for them in a way Jean isn’t capable of yet. Both women have scenes where they are incredibly vulnerable (physically and emotionally), and that rawness is what makes Oakley’s film so immediate and natural, even though it was set thirty-five years ago.
Watching Blue Jean now, you’d hope that the laws being discussed, harsh laws that strip people of support and rights would be a thing of the past, something we would have long ago realized was a terrible thing to have even considered. Yet here we are, slowly inching our way back to those horrific times. I sincerely hope that in another 35 years, we can watch it from a different space in history, where everyone is treated equally no matter whom they love or want to spend their lives with. Otherwise, we’ll all struggle with leading double lives like the central figure of Oakley’s creation.