“Blue Jean” is an Eighties-set drama that’s adorned with familiar references (at one point, New Order’s “Blue Monday” plays) – but isn’t mired in outlandish grime and misery. Most crucially, it’s a story about past injustice that doesn’t gorge itself on self-satisfaction. Nor the comforting myth that Britain is on a steady path of betterment.
Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a teacher in Newcastle. It’s 1988, in the weeks and months after Section 28 has come into effect, instructing British state schools not to “promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Jean has always kept her sexuality hidden from her coworkers. But that veil of self-protection comes under threat when she spots one of her new students, Lois (Lucy Halliday), at the local lesbian bar she frequents with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes).
This is a story ultimately about hypocrisy, in forms both cruel and tragic. Oakley and her cinematographer, Victor Seguin, tease out these ideas through a subtle visual code: the most oppressive spaces here (the school, the homes of unsupportive family members) are painted in the softest of pastels, as if a superficial attempt has been made to conceal their harshness.
For most of the staff at the hard-up Tyneside state school where young divorcée Jean (Rosy McEwen) works as a gym teacher, Section 28 makes little difference to how they go about their business. Bar the odd bit of crass anti-gay banter among the students, the subject hardly comes up. To Jean, however, the ruling cleaves her life in two. Marking a new chapter in her life at the outset of the film with a bleach-blonde crop that nods (like the film’s title) to mid-‘80s Bowie, she has only fairly recently come out as a lesbian to friends and family, even if her sister gingerly treats her identity as a kind of unsayable open secret. At work, however, she now has to stay tensely in the closet, her job at risk should any malicious colleague or pupil catch wind of her sexuality, or her “pretended family relationship” with forthright girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes).
The pretense becomes that much harder to maintain when gawky 15-year-old Lois (Lucy Halliday) arrives in her class, and the other girls immediately make the shy, unathletic newbie their punching bag — with queen bee Siobhan (Lydia Page) correctly intuiting her queerness, as the cruellest school bullies so often do. Jean, too, picks up on the exact nature of Lois’s misfit status even before the underage teen starts showing up at the lesbian bar she routinely frequents with Viv. But to defend her too keenly, or to demonstrate her allyship, would also be to invite schoolroom suspicion. In an effort to keep her own head down, Jean finds herself perpetuating the values of Section 28 — a self-betrayal that further threatens her relationship with Viv, who has no time for toeing the line.
It’s a fraught, no-win situation that Oakley’s brisk script negotiates with moral clarity but little rhetorical chiding. Jean’s deliberations between variously barbed, booby-trapped options, and her time-buying prevarications in the interim, are mapped out in premature worry lines on McEwen’s still, extraordinary face. Never quite relaxed even when slouched in sweats, the actor, who first made an impression in TV’s “The Alienist,” plays Jean with the porous, unassertive air of someone who has long had nothing to gain by standing up, or standing out. She has striking foils in the excellent Halliday, whose corrosive, truth-telling gaze belies her wallflower exterior, and Hayes, whose caustic, no-bull Viv is effectively the queer conscience that Jean daren’t voice for herself.
“Blue Jean” itself occasionally hesitates where it could make harder, more confident choices: In an effort not to tie too neat a bow around its thorny themes and relationships, Oakley risks leaving a little too much unsaid by the time of her elegantly open-ended final shot — precisely composed, like many others here, by DP Victor Seguin in a palette of soft, cottony pastels that runs refreshingly counter to the harsh, drab aesthetic common to this milieu in British indies.
If the film feels a little demure, too, in articulating Jean’s sex life and sensual identity, its depiction of a proudly communal working-class lesbian scene feels warm and inhabited — not to mention a relative rarity in British cinema, which, perhaps due to the explicit targeting of men by much anti-gay law in the U.K., has been far more generous in depicting queer male perspectives of oppression and repression. Section 28, of course, was less specific in its blanket discrimination, but Oakley’s restrained yet powerfully poised film doesn’t shoot for fuzzy big-picture universality. Instead it draws one stymied life with such texture and precision that you can see any number of others reflected in it, their identities as certain and inalienable as their rights.
Watch the trailer: