Georgia Oakley’s directorial debut, Blue Jean, stars Rosy McEwen as a lesbian teacher wrestling with anti-gay legislation during the 1980s.
Dramatic movies centered around important social issues always have a tough task at hand when it comes to succeeding on a storytelling level. The filmmakers run the risk of beating the audience over the head with horrible realities, so unless this drubbing is delivered very skillfully, audiences will tend to pull back and check out. And a story like this can easily feel implausible if the victim of a social injustice is painted as a flawless martyr, or the perpetrator is shown to be a textureless villain. Most potent is the pressure to depict issues and communities with a sense of depth and accuracy — many projects end up bland and ill-considered, either due to a fear of being admonished for “getting it wrong,” or a lack of interest in engaging with the actual people affected by the issues at hand.
Thankfully, Blue Jean handily overcomes all of these potential pitfalls and successfully walks the tightrope, crafting a story about the personal impacts of societal homophobia that no one could devalue by labeling it an “issue movie.” This is a sensitive and layered drama, one about real people rather than props in an object lesson, with an engaging tone and a clear interest in the slightly less obvious impacts of a heavy topic. The story told is authentic and unfettered from any worries about perfect optics. For anyone used to conventional narratives in lesbian films especially, this movie commits to providing a novel experience.
Shot on gorgeously diffused 16mm film stock that brings to mind the texture of decades-old photographs, Blue Jean focuses in on its title character, Jean, in 1988 Newcastle. The opening scenes judiciously lay out the details of her life. She bleaches her hair. She switches off the radio when political news is discussed. She confidently coaches her school’s netball teams. She eats lunch alone, listens to the other teachers gossip, and at night, she heads to the local lesbian bar to play pool with her partner and their friends. Anchored by Rosy McEwen’s nuanced lead performance, these opening scenes are realistic, meticulous, and engaging.
“I don’t want my students knowing every part of my life.”
Stressors begin to appear, however subtly at first, eventually growing too loud for Jean to ignore. An older neighbor woman gives judgemental stares. Conservative advertisements out of the Margaret Thatcher regime lament the supposed moral degradation of society. Jean’s sister offers performative support and ugly microaggressions in the same sentence. Looming homophobic legislation specifically targeting teachers and schools is discussed ominously by pundits, and with vicious approval by co-workers. Jean’s partner, Viv (a charming and heartbreaking Kerrie Hayes), questions why she’s introduced as “just a friend” and why she can’t come to school sports events. One of Jean’s newest students (Lucy Halliday) shows up at the bar, looking for support and acceptance from her and her friends, threatening the careful boundaries Jean has thoroughly set in her compartmentalized life.
These sequences gain an increasingly nervous, even paranoid tone, supported by an ornate original score by Chris Roe and increasingly subjective sequences that put us directly into Jean’s head, moreso than a realism-bound drama would usually allow. The sense of nervy dread that these often incidental daily occurrences cause in the viewer are quite an achievement, especially since the film doesn’t use them to go into a conventionally tragic direction. It would do the movie a disservice to reveal any more of the plot, but suffice to say that it goes beyond the usual tropes often deployed by movies about homophobia. Instead, the focus is on the wrenching difficulty of doing what a pivotal piece of bathroom-stall graffiti tells Jean to do: “resist the shame regime.” Writer/director Georgia Oakley isn’t afraid to make that journey messy and complicated in her debut, or to make her protagonist imperfect along the way.
The bottom line.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Blue Jean never feels like a cudgel, and it respects its queer audience by serving up a layered drama without pulling any punches. It honors the reality of queer life under oppression in recent history, and also provides honest encouragement and genuine catharsis in the face of ongoing social and political oppression faced by people in the LGBTQ+ community today. Balancing style with authenticity, Oakley proves herself to be one to watch as a filmmaker. McEwen proves herself worthy of one of the more interesting and multifaceted lesbian characters of recent years. And Blue Jean proves itself to be one of the standout films of 2023, carrying off a complex balancing act with gravitas.
Blue Jean opens in select theaters on June 16. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Read more from Leonora Waite — Master Gardener review: Paul Schrader’s latest needs fresher soil.
BLUE JEAN - 9/10