July 26, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Georgia Oakley
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1988, in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom, the dramatic film “Blue Jean” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A high school gym teacher, who is a closeted lesbian, faces reckonings in her personal life and in her career about homophobia and her fear of revealing her true sexuality.
Culture Audience: “Blue Jean” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, female-oriented dramas about how LGBTQ people are affected by homophobic aspects of society.
“Blue Jean” offers an unflinching look at how a British lesbian’s life is affected by homophobia. This drama takes place in 1988, but the themes are timeless and universal. The year 1988 was when the United Kingdom introduced the homophobic Section 28 legislation, which prohibited “promotion of homosexuality” through various laws. Section 28 legislation lasted until the early 2000s. The acting in “Blue Jean” is better than average, even though the movie’s ending might be too vague for some people.
Written and directed by Georgia Oakley, “Blue Jean” is Oakley’s feature-film directorial debut. “Blue Jean” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. “Blue Jean” was also nominated for 13 prizes for the 2022 British Independent Film Awards and ended up winning two: Best Lead Performance (for Rosy McEwen) and Best Supporting Performance (for Kerrie Hayes).
The movie is infused with effective tension, as viewers are shown what it’s like to be Jean Newman (played by McEwen), a physical education teacher in her late 20s, who is living a double life. All of Jean’s closest friends, who are queer, know that she’s a lesbian. Everyone else—including her sister and including Jean’s colleagues at the high school where she works—don’t know Jean’s true sexuality and assume that she’s heterosexual.
Jean doesn’t talk about her love life at work, but people know that she’s not married and has no children. When people assume that Jen is interested in dating men, Jean doesn’t correct them and tell them the truth. The truth is that for the past several months, Jean has been dating a butch lesbian named Vivian “Viv” Highton (played by Hayes), who is comfortable with being out in the open about being a lesbian.
Viv is a happy-go-lucky extrovert, while Jean is a moody and often-uptight introvert. The movie doesn’t say what Viv does for a living, but Viv probably has a job where she wouldn’t be fired because she’s a lesbian. Jean does not have that type of job in 1988. Viv’s outward appearance (she dresses like she’s in a motorcycle gang) also indicates that she has a job where she has the freedom to dress anyway that she wants in public.
“Blue Jean” has multiple scenes that show Jean and some of her friends anxiously watching TV news reports about the Section 28 legislation being pushed by U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other politicians in the Conservative Party. They also react with dismay and anger about how their lives are essentially being made into crimes. These news reports often include interviews with homophobic citizens who say that it’s damaging for children to be around gay or queer people and for children to know that queer people exist.
Section 28 applied to laws that were about “protecting children” from anything that could be described as promoting homosexuality or queerness. LGBTQ people being open about who they are was put in the category of “promotion,” so it’s little wonder that Jean (who loves her job) wants to hide her sexuality from her work colleagues in order to keep her job. Because Jean works with underage teenagers, her very existence could be labeled as a “danger” and a “crime” to these children if her secret was revealed.
It’s later shown in the movie that Jean has gone out of her way to take certain precautions so that people at work won’t find out about her double life. She currently works at a school that is quite a distance from where she lives. That’s because Jean hangs out at lesbian pubs and nightclubs near where she lives, and she doesn’t want to take the chance of any work colleagues, students or student parents seeing her going in and out of lesbian-oriented places. Jean also has a rule for Viv that Viv must never call Jean at work.
Viv understands why Jean is “in the closet,” and agrees to keep their relationship a secret from everyone but their queer friends. But as time goes on, this secret starts to take a toll on their relationship. Jean’s straight married sister Sasha (played by Aoife Kennan) sometimes asks Jean to look after Sasha’s son Sammy (played by Dexter Heads), who’s about 5 years old. If Viv is over at Jean’s place, Viv is described as a “friend,” and Jean misleads her family into thinking that her relationship with Viv is strictly platonic.
Jean also has to face some hard truths when a new student named Lois Jackson (played by Lucy Halliday), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, joins Jean’s gym class and makes Jean acutely aware of the consequences of living a lie. From her very first day in the class, Lois is pegged as an awkward misfit and is bullied and taunted by some of the female students. The “mean girl” who picks on Lois the most is a homophobic brat named Siobhan Murphy (played by Lydia Page), who is able to figure out that Lois isn’t heterosexual. Lois and Siobhan get into verbal and physical conflicts during Jean’s gym class.
One night, Jean is hanging out at a lesbian bar, when she is shocked to see Lois there. They both look at each other but say nothing, with each of them knowing that they now have a secret between them. Jean becomes even more on edge when it becomes apparent that Lois is yearning to “come out of the closet” and is seeking an adult mentor who can help Lois navigate what could be a very treacherous “coming out” situation. However, because Jean is deeply closeted herself, she has to decide if she is going to live her truth and help Lois, or if she is going to choose her job security and stay “in the closet” about her true sexuality.
One of the great things about the cast members’ performances in “Blue Jean” is that they show a lot of inner conflict without saying it out loud. It’s in Jean’s anguished facial expressions when she overhears co-workers make homophobic remarks but she says nothing. It’s in Viv’s pained body language when Jean rejects Viv’s attempts to hold hands in public, or when Jean lies to her family in describing Viv as “just a friend.” And it’s in how distressed and lonely Lois looks when she is being bullied in Jean’s class, and Jean doesn’t immediately come to her defense, out of fear that Jean will look like she’s giving preference to a possibly queer student.
Viewers will get a real sense that Lois’ presence is unsettling to Jean, not just because Lois knows Jean’s secret, but also because Lois probably reminds Jean of how Jean used to be as a teenager. “Blue Jean” does not have any dialogue or flashbacks that describe Jean’s childhood or teenage years. However, it’s pretty obvious that when Jean was underage, she did not have any adults in her life whom she could confide in to help Jean be her authentic self. Jean now has a chance to be that person for Lois, but will Jean make this decision that would cost Jean her job?
There’s more to the movie’s plot when something happens that essentially forces to Jean to make this decision. Jean also gets pressure from Viv to stop living a lie, because Viv is losing patience with Jean about how secretive their relationship has to be. “Blue Jean” does not judge Jean too harshly, but the movie does show in no uncertain terms that what Jean thinks of as “self-protection” can actually harm other people, including herself. The last third of the movie has some powerful moments where Jean has to face this harsh reality.
Oakley’s solid writing and director for “Blue Jean” is enhanced by the impressive naturalistic performances from the principal cast members. McEwen as Jean is the obvious standout with the lead role, but supporting actresses Hayes and Halliday as, respectively, as Viv and Lois, also have several impressive scenes in the movie. “Blue Jean” isn’t just a story about LGBTQ people and homophobia. It’s also a very meaningful character study of how dishonesty can damage relationships and chip away at someone’s soul and self-respect.
Magnolia Pictures released “Blue Jean” in New York City on June 9, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cities on June 16, 2023.