‘Blue Jean’ Review: No Privacy in the Girls’ Locker Room

In 1987, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, addressed public panic over children’s library books, stating at the Conservative Party conference, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” Thatcher’s views were quickly adopted into the British legal code, and in 1988, the government prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in school. The film “Blue Jean” sets its story in this repressive period. Broadcasts of Thatcher’s proclamations blare in the background as the movie’s protagonist, Jean (Rosy McEwen), traverses between her life as a lesbian and her life as a high school gym teacher.

When the film begins, Jean has already gone to the trouble of getting divorced and of coming out to her barely tolerant family. Her hair is bleached and her clothes are masculine, but she is still establishing a life for herself as a queer person. By contrast, Jean is in love with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), an out lesbian with a buzz cut and punk clothes. Viv is at ease with herself and other gay people. Viv’s many friends cast a slightly suspicious eye on Jean, as a jumpy newcomer to the lesbian club.

Jean appears more confident in the classroom. As a teacher, her demeanor is as cheekily frosty as her hair color. She maintains firm boundaries with her adolescent charges, insisting on promptness in the locker room and easily shrugging off any youthful insubordination.

But Jean’s equilibrium is disturbed when a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), enters the class. Lois becomes a target for Jean’s star student, who bullies Lois by suggesting to the class that she might be a lesbian. At first, Lois tries to halfheartedly deny the accusations, but she soon finds that her fists provide a better defense.

It is Jean’s professional responsibility to resolve fights between students. But as someone who has been on the receiving end of discrimination, Jean feels a communal obligation to get involved and to use what authority she has to prevent younger people from becoming both victims and perpetrators of homophobia. This responsibility rattles Jean, disturbing even her life with Viv, and the film uses her terror to draw out genuine feeling and dramatic conflict. In some scenes, conversations about lesbian aggression appear to make Jean spontaneously break out in hives — a credit to the film’s makeup team and to McEwen’s committed performance.

The film’s writer and director, Georgia Oakley, has made an accomplished movie in many ways. “Blue Jean” looks fantastic, and the period details are pitch perfect, from the moppish 1980s haircuts to the New Order music choices, all the way down to the neon gender symbols at the lesbian bar. Yet the film’s most impressive quality is its nuanced understanding of how political circumstances create different spheres of life. Jean is a character who moves both discreetly and discretely between worlds that cannot acknowledge each other. Her public and private lives are stacked, and Jean carries both like fragile cargo. One dish too many, and the whole tray could come crashing down.

Blue Jean
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.

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