“Lesbian phys-ed teacher” feels like a stereotype that’s outlived its days as “that first gay woman I ever knew” and “rite of passage” trope.
Back in the modern American dark ages, there was even a queer folk song about it, “Ode to a Gym Teacher,” a classic of its time, a tad cringy now.
But writer-director Georgia Oakley embraces and upends that “type” in her sensitive, compassionate and very smart period piece “Blue Jean,” about a closeted gym teacher in the Newcastle of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Oakley’s made a depressingly timely film about an earlier “push back” against gay rights and equality, but a movie shot through with hope, the sure knowledge that history isn’t a river, it’s a tide that ebbs and flows.
News reports on TV and the radio underscore teacher Jean Newman’s daily life, accounts of Britain’s version of “family values” conservatives pushing the grim Section 28 law through, and the noisy and inventive gay rights protests that accompanied that.
It’s 1988, and Jean (Rosy McEwen of TV’s “The Alienist”) dyes her short blonde bob, keeps order in her classes, the peace on her school’s netball team, the horseplay to a minumum in the locker room and keeps her personal life separate from her school and her fellow teachers.
She’s paranoid, and no matter what her brassy, out-and-proud motorbiker girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) may think and say, Jean knows she needs to be careful. Parliament, local councils and her own colleagues could end her career on the flimsiest pretext, were they to find her out.
Viv can joke “I’ll bet there’s loads of les’s on your team” in front of their friends at the pub. But callowly assessing Jean’s gaydar is off the table and out of the question, even if “You can just tell.”
New girl Lois puts all of Jean’s instincts — fear for herself, and an urge to confide and comfort — to their severest test. Lois, played by screen newcomer Lucy Halliday, is tough and brawny enough to play soccer with the lads. That’s going to get her teased and taunted in all-girl gym class and on the netball team.
She’s flinty enough to manage that. But when 15 year-old Lois shows up at the Jean’s gay bar of choice, the perils pile up thanks to a heedless, clueless child who can’t read the room, the country or the state of school districts all across Britain.
Lois may have a crush, but she’s a naive bull in the china shop on the court, in the locker room and in the pub. And Jean’s warnings and threats fall on deaf ears.
Jean’s “Just ignore them” advice about bullies earns a testy “Is that what YOU did?”
Oakley sets up a sort of dread expectation with this story, and wisely rises above the cliches as she does.
Hayes transforms herself into a weary stereotype, right down to the tattoos, buzzcut and motorcycle. But her performance as Viv has a sensitivity that surprises beyond the bravado.
Newcomer Halliday gives Lois layers, letting us glimpse the child bullied and socially and governmentally shunned underneath the bluff, can’t-hurt-me teen exterior.
And McEwen takes us into this world and this woman struggling with it and lets us know a flesh and blood victim of a ground roots backlash that threatened her right to exist, something being cynically exploited by the last gasps of Britain’s most butch prime minister, a woman who took pride in her meanness even as her grasp on power was slipping.
Oakley’s ability to find a hopeful spin to put on this bleak time is a history lesson for us all. As Alan Moore, he smartest guy ever to write for comic books put it, we can react and fight back but never despair at outbursts of hate from officialdom.
“Our leaders do not control the tides of history — they are just surfing them.”
And like the tides, this wave too shall pass. The vigilant’s job is to keep the brief squall at bay until it does.
Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, under-age drinking, profanity
Cast: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday and Lydia Page
Credits: Scripted and directed by Georgia Oakley. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:37