We often view the battle for LGBTQ+ rights through the lens of those who brazenly challenged the status quo. The frontline soldier that, in some cases, risked careers and personal safety in the fight for equality. Not everyone is built for the trenches though, and some individuals such as physical education teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen) prefer to quietly support the cause from a distance. However, as one observes in Georgia Oakley’s riveting feature debut Blue Jean, it is only a matter of time before one must step off the sidelines when basic human rights are at stake.
Set in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in 1988, gay and lesbian panic has rushed into mainstream society like a faucet whose shut-off valve is broken. The Conservative government is preparing to pass the controversial law Section 28, which would stigmatize homosexuality, and panic is rampant in communities under the guise of needing to protect the children. Oakley’s film may take place 35 years in the past, but it sadly feels ripped from today’s headlines.
For individuals like Jean, who has been hiding her sexuality and living a double life since her divorce, the proposed law and counter-protest it is causing within the gay and lesbian community hits closer to home with each passing day. As if trapped in a room with the walls slowly closing in on her, she cannot escape the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment at work or the accusatory eyes of nosy neighbours when she returns home at night. Opting to simply keep her head down and remain in the closet when not among close friends, Jean is a stark contrast to her lover, Viv (Kerrie Hayes, who is a revelation in her supporting turn).
Fully comfortable living in her own skin, Viv firmly believes that it is society at large and not her sexuality that needs changing. Refusing to contort herself in the oppressive boxes others want to place her in, Viv believes that it is crucial for one to live in their truth. She is the type of person who will always chose to stay and fight while Jean contemplates flight.
Fleeing England may seem like an enticing option for Jean, but she is not quite ready to give up the job she loves and her family. She has a sister who embraces her sexuality as long as she keeps it hidden from her young nephew. Jean’s increasingly fragile life is further complicated by the arrival of a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), who spots her at a local lesbian bar one night. Though determined to maintain professional boundaries between teacher and student, Jean soon finds herself in the middle of an incident that will cause her to question herself and the realities of the world she can no longer ignore.
Anchored by stunning performances from the predominately female ensemble, Blue Jean is a powerful examination of the importance of community in the fight for equality. In capturing the inner turmoil Jean wrestles with, not wanting to rock the boat while simultaneously seeing the destructive waves of prejudice growing, Oakley highlights how essential it is to have people who embrace you for who you are. Through Lois’ introduction to Jean’s broader network of friends, the film touches many of the hardships and obstacles members of the lesbian community endured during that turbulent time.
Even in the dark moments of the time, there were those within the community, such as Jean, who used their positions in society to provide support to those in need. This brings an added layer of complexity to the inner conflict and poor decisions Jean struggles with throughout the film. Her concerns about losing her job, if her sexuality is revealed, and her reluctance to speak up when needed the most initially comes off as cowardice. However, when one digs deeper one understands that the character’s decisions, even the bad ones, are not as black and white as they seem.
One of the brilliant aspects of McEwen’s sensational lead turn is the way she keeps Jean’s humanity at the forefront. Regardless of whether navigating sibling dynamics or the difference in approaches that she and Viv take, McEwen’s Jean is both complicated and immensely relatable. Oakley further accentuates the performance through her use of colour in the film. Whether at school coaching girl’s netball or navigating daily life, Jean is presented in a stone-washed blue colour palette. This not only reflects the drabness of a life not whole but is also nicely juxtaposed with the warmth of reds and pinks that she is bathed in when at the bar surrounded by Viv and her friends.
It is in the safety of friendship that Blue Jean finds its greatest strength. In a time when sexuality is once again a hot button issue, the film is an important reminder that the love of a community will always be more powerful than rhetoric of hate.