Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean is a film about life made unlivable due to the venomous prudishness of British culture. Set in Newcastle, in the north of England, in the late 1980s, the film follows twentysomething Jean (Rosy McEwen) as she juggles a double life: self-effacing physical education teacher by day and femme club-going lesbian by night.
Jean seems to be doing a good job of keeping these personas separate, even if it means that her silence feeds everyone’s presumptions of her heterosexuality. That is, until one of her students, Lois (Lucy Halliday), also a lesbian, starts showing up at the pub where Jean hangs out with her queer friends and butch, tatted-up punk-rock girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), who, unlike Jean, is completely uninterested in passing for straight in order to accommodate homophobes.
Either Jean lies and parrots the lesbophobic drivel that passes for casual conversation and political discourse among those in her midst, or she tells the truth and risks losing her job and becoming a pariah. It isn’t until she’s forced to make ethical decisions involving Lois and false accusations of sexual harassment involving the girl and another one of Jean’s students, Siobhan (Lydia Page), that the price of self-erasure begins to seem too high to pay.
Oakley’s film, gorgeously shot on 16mm by Victor Seguin (Gagarine, Full Time), can sometimes feel redundant, reminding us too many times that the story takes place in the context of Section 28, which were a series of laws across Great Britain introduced by Margaret Thatcher that banned the so-called promotion of homosexuality. Similar, again, to Maryam, Blue Jean is most remarkable when it simply observes Jean as she exists in her unmanageable world. In this case, when the accusations of sexism and the feminist interventions happen not through the obviousness of words, but through situations that Jean finds herself in.
In one memorable scene, Jean is at her young nephew’s birthday party, enduring a compendium of sexist jokes and questions. She’s downed a couple of shots by then, and musters the courage to tell her brother-in-law, Tim (Scott Turnbull), and his colleague, Craig, (Edmund Wiseman) that she’s a lesbian, then laughs her way out of the house and down the block.
Jean’s cathartic laughter is one of surprise but also of belated reparation—a feminist laughter that cleverly exposes men as pathetically vulnerable in the face of honesty. In fact, one of the most enjoyable characteristics of Blue Jean is how it more than ably exposes sexism and homophobia in British culture, as well as a toxic fabric of social relations evidently built on some primeval phobia of not just lesbians, but sex, pleasure, the body, and the truth writ large.