Quietly devastating yet hopeful.
Blue Jean opens with the titular Jean cutting and dying her hair. As she goes through the process in her modest-but-spotless bathroom, she never loses focus: it feels almost like a ritual, with her face unreadable. But as she pulls off the towel to reveal her bleached crop, there’s a small smile. She’s now herself.
In queer communities, the term ‘Blue Jean’ refers to lesbians who aren’t quite masculine, aren’t quite feminine, but are somewhere in the middle. They tend to avoid the more statement ‘masc’ identifiers like buzzcuts and piercings, but also feel more at home in a pair of jeans than in hyperfeminine clothing like dresses and skirts. They exist somewhere in the middle, and it’s in that middle ground that Jean straddles throughout the entire drama movie.
As a PE teacher navigating the education system during the midst of Section 28, Jean lives a double-life: shunning connection with her co-workers and avoiding getting to close to them during the day (just in case they find out her ‘secret’), while at night, she ventures out to gay bars and surrounds herself with her community (warning: spoilers ahead).
UK movies and TV series about LGBTQ+ issues are usually set in London and Manchester – where the queer community, even then, was more visible, open, and unapologetic. But in Blue Jean, director Georgia Oakley treads new ground by highlighting the experience of queer people in areas where they were forced to become that little bit more invisible: in this case, Northern England.
When she isn’t teaching students netball, or with her out-and-proud girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) behind closed doors, Jean is something of a wallflower.
She bites her tongue when colleagues gather round the radio and tut at the “promotion of homosexuality,” she’s hesitant to intervene when her students use homophobic slurs to insult each other, and despite her girlfriend’s protests, she can’t resist bingeing Cilla Black’s Blind Date: seeming to find comfort in the familiarity of heteronormativity despite its clear absurdity and her own rejection of it.
As Jean, Rosy McEwan is timid — but this is a decisive performance choice where she skilfully conveys the character’s inner turmoil through not just what she says and what she does, but more prominently what she doesn’t say or do. In 2023, it’s easy to judge and despair at Jean for trying to hide her girlfriend; or for not speaking out against homophobia amongst her students, but as a permanent deer-in-the-headlights, McEwan is able to demonstrate the simple truth: Jean is terrifed.
The permanent unease Jean feels is something that seeps into the directorial direction of the new movie. During the day, especially when Jean is at school, the scenes have a blueish tint to them: devoid of any kind of warmth with an undercurrent of hostility. It’s only under the cover of darkness and the warm neon lights of lesbian bars and clubs that Jean is truly able to come alive, and this is something that is reinforced in the visualities of these scenes.
Certain 2022 movies patted themselves on the back for purportedly portraying nudity and female pleasure accurately on screen. But Blue Jean actually succeeds both in this and in portrayals of nudity by removing the male gaze from the equation entirely. Sex scenes are presented as something intimate rather than performance art, and nudity/topless scenes are framed as a microcosm of freedom rather than something to be sexualized.
Perhaps this is because sexuality is also used as a weapon in this movie, with school bully Siobhan (Lydia Page) cornering gawky new student and out-lesbian Lois (Lucy Halliday) in the showers, before abusing the power dynamics that come with being a straight person to accuse her of assault.
These scenes are amongst the most painful and troubling in the 2023 movie, but Page and Halliday carry them with competence. The fact that the movie looks like it could’ve been filmed in the ’80s, with the camera mimicking the style of homophobic PSAs broadcast at the time, makes these scenes all the more tense.
As Lois, Halliday is especially skillful in balancing the vulnerability that comes with being a young queer person and the aggressiveness she must present to the world to survive.
Although Blue Jean is posited as taking place at a very specific point in history, at it’s core is the cyclical nature and dynamics of found-family and queer communities. People new to the queer scene are taken in and somewhat mentored by those more worldly-wise, and once they feel fully comfortable with themselves, they’re expected to carry on that cycle of mentorship. We finally see Jean transition to the latter category by the end of the film, although this comes at a significant cost for several characters.
Ultimately, as LGBTQ+ communities continue to prevail against adversity, Blue Jean feels almost timeless in its messaging and themes: especially when contextualised alongside current issues.