Blue Jean arrives in UK cinemas on February 24th 2023.
Jean has plenty of reasons to be blue. Although she loves her job as a PE teacher in a Tyneside secondary school, every day is a test of her nerves. It’s 1988, and neither her colleagues nor her students know she’s a lesbian.
As news of what would eventually become Section 28 filters in and out of the background, Rosy McEwen plays Jean as someone so knotted with tension that it’s unclear if she’s even fully conscious of its effects. She’s forever playing possum, always alert to a whispered comment or the twitch of a curtain but resisting any impulse to react – even openly acknowledging the source of the stress she’s living through would make everything exponentially worse. Of course, things do get worse when shy newcomer Lois (Lucy Halliday) joins the school and becomes the target of homophobic bullying by her fellow students, antipathy from other teachers and wary, conflicted concern from Jean herself.
Blue Jean is not a film about the past. Setting it in 1988 is just a return to the original site of the crater we’ve been living in ever since. Section 28 may have been repealed in the early 2000s, but its legacy has been nothing short of catastrophic. It deprived queer students of a meaningful education about their history and lives, including specific advice on protecting themselves against HIV. Not only that, by effectively gagging teachers, it has left the education sector with little to no accumulated experience in how to help queer students with the challenges they face.
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Sadly, there will be plenty of viewers who know first-hand that the largely ineffectual approach to bullying taken by teaching staff in the film, including Jean herself, to a certain extent, is not something that was left behind in the eighties, along with video arcades and shoulder pads.
There are other moments in the film that lean on conflicts that have become more prominent in the wider queer community of the present day. Jean’s sister insists on displaying a photo from Jean’s wedding day despite knowing that Jean doesn’t want to be reminded of her marriage to her unseen ex-husband. This calls to mind the reactions newly-out trans people might face from family members. Meanwhile, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), Jean’s girlfriend, challenges the idea that Jean can exist as an island in her own identity as a means of protecting herself from the drip-feed of low-level hostility she faces every day. What kind of example, she asks, is Jean setting for her students if she cannot stand in her own truth?
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Stylistically, Blue Jean draws on conventions that were popular at the time of its setting. By and large, it would not look out of place amongst the Film4 or Screen Two films that were being produced in the eighties and nineties. However, without that television-based sensibility, there are points where the film lingers too long on interstitial material, whereas the likes of Antonia Bird or Beeban Kidron might have opted to keep things moving at a slightly faster pace.
With many scenes outside the school taking place in the stark urban night, the film could be considered a spiritual successor to Nighthawks, a 1978 film directed by Ron Peck about the daily life of a gay teacher, which also had a somewhat ambient take on telling its story through a social realist lens. In its reanimation of the not-so-distant past, Blue Jean delivers a stark warning not to perpetuate the comfortable lie that the dark days of homophobia are behind us.
The story could probably stand a slightly pacier edit, even at a rather skimpy 97 minutes. But In its reanimation of the not-so-distant past, Blue Jean delivers a stark warning not to perpetuate the comfortable lie that the dark days of homophobia are behind us.