Director: Georgia Oakley
Stars: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday
If there’s one thing that’s clear from watching this impressive feature debut from Georgia Oakley, its that she’s fully aware of the power and nostalgia entwined within the bassy sound of New Order’s “Blue Monday” as it cuts through the climate of a smoky nightclub. I used to smoke in clubs. These days I neither venture to such places nor do I smoke, but the pangs encouraged by such scenes in Oakley’s Blue Jean are fierce. Palpable.
We’re back in time. It’s 1988. Thatcher’s Britain. Tyneside PE teacher Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen) is a divorcee and a closeted lesbian trying to navigate a hostile terrain. The government’s contentious enacting of Section 28 – a bit of heavy-handed anti-gay propaganda urging councils to disavow homosexuality – is all over the peripheries of Blue Jean as evidence of the homophobic climate. Jean herself is outwardly uninterested in the debate; turning it off in her car when it comes on the radio, dodging the subject with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes). Perhaps because the politics of her sexuality are so entrenched in her daily life at school, where being out would swiftly lead to her dismissal.
Jean is a well-meaning but easily shaken individual. She’s surprised to hear herself described as “a deer in headlights”, but that’s often how she appears. McEwen’s performance is a wonder of wide-eyed vulnerability. Her Jean is bright yet worn-in, scrawny; a product of the casual shaming that has formed her upbringing. Life is about to get more challenging thanks to the arrival of a new student named Lois (Lucy Halliday), a 15-year-old wallflower whose burgeoning queerness reminds Jean of her own youthful struggles. When the two lock eyes out of school at a gay bar, the wall between Jean’s public and private lives take a knock from a wrecking ball.
Oakley shoots to match her time period, evoking the grainy slice-of-life minutiae of Bill Forsyth or Éric Rohmer. Anyone hoping for the giddiness of the latter, however, has been misdirected. While Oakley skirts the misery-porn that mires so much of British working class cinema, Blue Jean is appropriately named, carving out a character study steeped in worry. Indeed the terrors of homophobic Britain are felt more keenly from Jean than the world surrounding her. In spite of a relatively passive sense of indignation in the community, Jean’s fight-or-flight responses are on high alert. Granted, her job is genuinely at risk, but she repeatedly doubles down, breaking the ethics of teacher/pupil boundaries, pushing an often exceedingly well-grounded piece of fiction into the realms of the slightly incredulous.
Oakley’s storytelling is enhanced by the strong sense of time and place that is conjured, and via the performances that keep Blue Jean compelling. Wardrobe (Kirsty Halliday) and production design (Soraya Gilanni) are key factors in the former, rendering an authentically dreary vision of ’80s fashions. Less frizzy perms and shoulder pads, more shitty jumpers and messy eyeliner. Jean herself seems to have taken casual influence from the Bowie looks of the era (outside of school, naturally). Meanwhile, the fuzzy reception of a Blind Date broadcast, a sadly laminated café menu, those fucking benches that sat in every public school gym in the country… the small details all register.
McEwen’s performance is the lynchpin, but she is ably surrounded. Hayes’ part as Jean’s girlfriend is an absolute gem (not to mention some incredibly welcome humanising of an oft-cliché ‘type’), and in a more considered world she’d be in all the best supporting talk this time of year. Blue Jean also asks much of it’s younger stars, both the aforementioned Halliday as well as Lydia Page who plays Lois’ clearly-closeted school bully Siobahn. Both provide naturalistic takes on well-established roles, anchoring Blue Jean is a sense of truth.
While for the most part this is another drama exploding the hardships of queer life in a specific milieu, there’s room for joy and safe spaces, too. The studio loft that Jean and Viv frequent with their lesbian friends is a grimy little sanctuary, reflective of a grassroots underground scene that Blue Jean never quite develops to its full potential. In an era when an attacked subculture found resistance through activism, creativity and community, this is something of a missed opportunity, as Oakley opts instead for a more introverted and humdrum vision of lesbianism under the conservative cosh. This is, however, in keeping with her broadly muted approach. One or two tonal stumbles aside (wild horses on the horizon? really?), her vision is lock-step with her cast, amounting to a quietly bruised gem that teases great things to come from all involved.