Review: '80s Lesbian Drama 'Blue Jean' More than 'Herstory'
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Writer-director Georgia Oakley transports audiences back to 1988 and Britain's infamous Section 28, a law forbidding the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools... in other words, the acknowledgement that LGBTQ+ people exist, they have a right to equal treatment under the law, and if they have problems, many of those problems have probably been manufactured and imposed on them by laws like Section 28.
As debate rages in the background on the radio, the TV news, and billboards around town, gym teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen) carefully carves out a life for herself as a lesbian with a girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes). Jean is out to friends but very much in the closet at work. The only place Jean is free to be herself is among her friends in a lesbian social club. They play blackball pool and throw house parties... and Jean keeps her involvement with them on the DL, much like she keeps her relationship with Viv a secret.
All of this being the case, Jean is hardly ready to become an advocate for herself, much less any queer students in her school. Still, she's found a balance of sorts, and she's thriving when the arrival of Lois (Lucy Halliday) throws everything into doubt. The school's mean girls – and especially Siobhan (Lydia Page) – take an instant dislike to Lois. When Lois realizes that Jean is a lesbian and begins looking to her as something of a role model, Jean's first, panicked instinct is to try to create some distance between them, to Viv's disapproval.
The controversy surrounding Section 28 looms large: "Not everything is political," Jean tells Viv; "Of course it is," Viv responds. Still, the film's focus is more on the emotional and mental toll societal prejudices wreak on the minority groups they target. Keenly aware that, as a teacher, she's precisely in the crosshairs of Section 28, and of societal opprobrium, Jean spends every waking moment in a state of anxiety. (In a moment of foreshadowing, early in the film, Jean gives her class a quick lecture on the "fight or flight response," a physiological state that, we know now, can be immensely damaging if sustained over the long term.)
It doesn't help matters that her own sister, Sam, who claims to be supportive, can't let go of an image of Jean as heterosexual; she keeps Jean's wedding photo on display, despite Jean's recent divorce, and when she finds out that Viv was in Jean's home briefly while Jean was babysitting her nephew, Sam blurts out the ne plus ultra of passive-aggressive homophobic remarks: "You can see where it's hard for me to trust you."
But as Siobhan's hatred and bullying intensify, Jean may be Lois' only ally. Will Jean intervene and be the role model that Lois needs, despite the risk of being accused of some sort of improper relationship with the student? (The right-wing tactic of smearing sexual minorities as "groomers" is nothing new.) Or will Jean take the coward's way out and compound her internalized shame with the knowledge that she didn't help a young person in distress? It's a nightmare situation that no one should ever have to navigate – though, thanks to anti-LGBTQ+ red state laws, too many people in the America of here and now are faced with dilemmas of the same sort.
The film's story beats are formulaic and the politics are ripped from a too-familiar playbook, but "Blue Jean" carries a topical charge that can't be denied. Oakley's direction, which feels truthful, drives visceral truths home while the performances of her cast help propel the film to a higher level.
Section 28 was finally repealed in 2003, but its ideological – and far more sinister – cousins are thriving in the U.S. with every law that claims to "protect" children while actively harming their physical and mental health and diminishing their prospects. Almost four decades later, Jean's story – which should be moldy history, consigned to uncensored books in libraries free to serve the public – plays like a current events piece.
"Blue Jean" opens in theaters June 9.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.