‘Blue Jean’ Is a Powerful Movie Sounding the Alarm on Anti-Gay Hate

Blue-Jean-Review - Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Blue-Jean-Review - Credit: Magnolia Pictures

“Not everything is political.” The person saying this, with a sightly exasperated air, is named Jean (Rosy McEwen). She’s a high school PE teacher, recently(ish) divorced, and still mostly closeted about her sexuality. This declaration of independence is being addressed to her off-on, and very much out, girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes). “Of course it is,” Jean’s partner tells her, and the hint of affection in her voice could almost be mistaken for pity. This is England, 1988 — Margaret Thatcher still rules with an iron-lady fist, and she’s about to will a particularly toxic piece of legislation into existence.

The mere mention of “Section 28” can inspire spontaneous shuddering in a generation of Britons; Americans may never have heard of this vintage law, but they’ll recognize the bigotry that fueled it. Thatcher made a speech in 1987, saying that “children need to be taught to respect traditional moral values … [not] an inalienable right to be gay.” The following year, there was a clause in the Local Government Act that prohibited school boards from discussing or “promoting homosexuality” as an acceptable lifestyle choice, or as something acceptable whatsoever. The protect-the-children! hysteria was merely a pretense for socially sanctioned homophobia and straight-up anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments. Protests were legion. Yet the law wasn’t struck down in the U.K. until 2003.

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This is the world that Blue Jean drops viewers into: An England that’s sharpening its knives against those it feels do not conform to those aforementioned standards of “decency.” And it’s a past that writer-director Georgia Oakley wants to remind you is not really that distant. Our bottle-blonde hero Jean is beloved by her students, especially the netball team players she coaches. And she’s established a community of sorts around her at a local gay bar, though it’s mostly Viv’s friends. But the movie never lets you forget that hate buzzes constantly in the background. Snippets of Thatcher’s speech share airtime with news reports of people taking to the streets during Jean’s morning commute. Billboards asking, “Are Your Children Being Taught Traditional Values?” dot the path where she jogs. Casual comments laced with free-floating prejudice are a constant in the teachers’ room. Even the TV programs that Jean watches to unwind consist of kitschy game shows like Blind Date, which seeks to “find a boy and a girl who go together like birds of a feather.” Her very existence is under attack in ways both unpronounced and blatant.

Still, Jean maintains the façade and keeps the mask in place for her job, which becomes a lot harder to do when a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), joins her class. Coach clocks her kicking a ball around in the quad, and immediately reacts. It’s not an attraction so much as a recognition — she senses a kindred spirit in terms of where this young woman falls on the Kinsey scale. This is confirmed when Lois shows up at the club that Jean frequents with her girlfriend; when the teenager spots her teacher there as well, things become complicated regarding Jean’s ability to keep her two lives separate. Suddenly, she doesn’t feel comfortable in the safe space of the bar or the dangerous ground of the workplace. Worse, a terror of a student (Lydia Page) accuses Lois of coming on to her. Jean knows this isn’t true. But because of Section 28, she can’t risk saying anything to defend the teen, either….

Blue Jean lives or dies on us sitting in that hot seat right next to her, of feeling that sense of death by a thousand lies and moral compromises in the name of survival. That’s where McEwen comes in, and she gives Jean a sense of always being on the defensive without having the luxury of showing her dread to the world. There are equally strong veins of self-loathing and self-preservation in her performance, as well as a refusal to pander for an audience’s sympathy while courting its empathy. McEwen leans in to the less likable aspects of Jean, especially in relation to the more-comfortable-in-her-tattooed-skin Viv. Sometimes she treats her girlfriend badly in the name of a family that “accepts” Jean’s sexuality in scare quotes, and with caveats. Sometimes she treats her badly because she doesn’t like herself. You understand this woman even when she’s behaving abhorrently. She’s got to navigate internal and external minefields.

Jean also has to find her way through a coming-out tale that jumps the line between character study and melodrama at will, and while Oakley and her star do their best to avoid clichés, there are patches of rough air in Blue Jean that cause some narrative bumps. But it also avoids giving you the sort of easy-answer ending that it appears to be setting up, favoring a sort of hard-won honesty over happily ever afters. Small victories, it suggests, are still victories. Sometimes simply refusing to lie down is its own way of standing up to something.

What makes this British movie rise above a million other films like it, however, is its refusal to view looking back as a way of shutting the door on a historical black mark. We know that Section 28 will one day be relegated to the dustbin. These characters don’t, and Oakley gives them the dignity of having to live their lives under fire the best they can, one day at a time. And it’s not a leap to think that the filmmaker is well aware that the threat of a major slide backward never really goes away. Any similarity between this moment in Britain’s sociopolitical landscape and more recent ones probably isn’t coincidental. Nor are such things the sole property of a country far, far away. (Plus ça change.…) Blue Jean manages to take an ancient anti-LGBTQ+ law and use it to foster a story of personal liberation. But it also knows that when your basic rights are threatened, no matter who you are or how you live or who you love, everything most assuredly is political. Of course it is.

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