Blue Jean: Emerging, by Scott Nye
Right from the start, we see Jean (Rosy McEwen) in a state of change – maybe it’s as simple as dying her hair, but given that this event is closely followed by news of Britain’s Section 28 laws, Jean’s life is about to complicate whether she initiates it or not. We’re in Newcastle, 1988. Jean is a PE teacher who’s out of the closet to her friends and family but closed off at work in more ways than just that. When a new student arrives not just at school but at the gay bar Jean frequents, Jean senses the clock is ticking on her own survival.
With her debut feature, writer/director Georgia Oakley carves out vital space in the gay historical drama, one that has obvious, pertinent ties to the present and doesn’t seal the past off as a time we’ve overcome, but as a point on a continuum of turmoil. Jean has told herself that if she keeps her head down at work and does her job well, her very identity needn’t come into conflict with that. It’s a necessary bet a lot of queer people have had to make, and still have to make, in order to survive. It’s not always tenable.
Even besides the job and new student, her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) wants to be more involved in Jean’s family life, and on the whole has a much more politically and socially active idea of what it means to be a lesbian. Jean’s out to her family, but doesn’t have space to talk about it (the closest thing she finds to sympathy is her sister saying “I support you, but…”). She’s caught between a desire for normalcy and a dissatisfaction with it. To Oakley’s immense credit, she doesn’t let the resulting fallout be entirely out of Jean’s control. Jean makes many, many mistakes, very quickly, in trying to force everything to stay intact.
In an interview with Marya Gates at RogerEbert.com, Oakley noted, “coming out is often perceived as this one-time thing, but actually, in my experience, it has been something that you kind of live every day and that changes shape depending on where you’re at in your life at that moment.” This is a film about all those little moments and deciding just how real you can be in them; or what “real” even is. McEwen’s fantastic performance is appropriately anxiety-ridden, giving Jean a series of rehearsed behaviors that she can fall on to feel safe, the occasional exhale, only to clamp right back up again when she’s thrust into a situation that’s too unpredictable.
With only a couple of details suggesting backstory – that Jean was previously married and had longer hair – McEwen suggests a world of uncertainty, a likely possibility that Jean is only recently out of the closet at all, and has shaken up her life without knowing how it will look after. It’s pat to say “this is the sort of story anyone can relate to,” as though the hurdle to relate to gay stories is so great in any context; the truth is we’re all borne of similar instincts, fears, desires, and tendencies, that play out in familiar patterns across a wide swath of experiences.
Like last year’s outstanding Happening, Blue Jean shies away from ostentatiously displaying its period setting, letting naturalism take the fore, almost as if it could be of a piece with films made at the time it takes place. Kirsty Halliday (costumes), Soraya Gilanni (production design), and Eliora Darmon (set decoration) are all on their second features in their roles, and their efforts are so key to how familiar each space feels, even over thirty years removed from the time period and much of it distinct to a particular place.
In an artistic period given to investing everything in the idea of victimhood, Oakley’s stellar debut film cuts a level deeper – that an oppressive culture turns us into people we do not want to be. Blue Jean is a film about finding those limits; hopefully not too late.