Cast: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson. Directed by Jonathan Butterell.
This year is stacked for movie musicals, for those wanting big proud stage shows thrown onto the silver screen this is the year to enjoy. In his debut, Jonathan Butterell gives us an out-and-proud true story to enjoy.
Taking its lead from the hit West End musical that was itself inspired by the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 the film follows Jamie New who on his sixteenth birthday decides to be true to himself and become a drag queen and in a shocking choice – wear a dress to the prom.
The story the sort that was made for movies, a story of a small town kid being different from the norm and the fallout that occurs following. What the film does is to make the vision of himself what we see on screen, the music and the way the aspect ratio changes is a mirror of how Jamie himself sees his world.
Butterell’s debut plays with the medium of film, at times keeping the camera up close and personal almost hand-held then sweeping crane shots and fantastical dance sequences. The bigger numbers are done with the feel of a music video, aping the style of Madonna’s Vogue at some points, while personal heartfelt songs keep the vision squarely on performances.
It’s not hard to see why. For his debut on screen, Max Harwood shines. It’s a role that requires big ballsy confidence and Harwood has it spades, commanding the screen but also showing sensitivity and emotion when needed. It’s the sort of debut that makes you think – this actor was born to be on screen. Lauren Patel, similarly, is sensational as bookish bestie Pritti Pasha. In a role that could easily be “helpful best friend” smart writing keeps her as a key player in the story.
The more veteran cast members shine also. Sarah Lancashire as Jamie’s supportive mother is a beautifully moderated performance bringing great emotion to scenes that could feel contrived or trite. Richard E. Grant gets the showy role of a local former-Drag Queen who inspired Jamie – Loco Chanelle – but Grant and the writers are smart not to go too far. He’s camp, and having a blast, but there’s a genuine emotion and desire for something deeper.
The film isn’t afraid to address the power that words have over people, the corrosive power homophobic words can have on us, and that when we say things the effects run deep. The film also reminds us that this microcosm story of a school not accepting a boy wanting to wear a dress speaks to a bigger problem in the world. Grant’s solo song reminds us that not too long ago a virus spread through the world that people allowed to because it was “the gay plague”. It doesn’t swamp the film, but the reminder that the indifference and hatred of others meant gay people died.
The film isn’t without fault, the caricature nature of the other students, coupled with a shallow bully role for Samuel Bottomly don’t fully explore the ramifications of a breaking form the norm. It’s strange but at times the status quo nature of the story dove tails into High School Musical territory. Sharon Horgan while good doesn’t get much to do with her role, that at times subverts the usual supportive teacher trope but doesn’t often come across as anything more than a mouth piece for naysaying.
The film isn’t afraid to show the difficulty of being a sixteen year old, and explores Jamie’s difficulty compartmentalising the two sides of him. It’s not without it’s moments where Jamie isn’t totally likeable, and for a big proud musical that’s a brave move even with it’s more shallow sensibilities.
Even if the film doesn’t explore the real implications of it’s story, it’s heart and pride are hard to deny and in a time when hate crimes are still an issue, it’s a reminder that there is nothing better to the human soul than being yourself. All that because a boy from the North of England wore a frock to the prom.