In the season of parades and festivals, the term “Gay Pride” seems to become almost synonymous with “Gay Community”. But while community is a grand and important thing, it is useful to remember that at its core Gay Pride is about us as individuals, about each of us coming to know our own worth as human beings, and gaining the strength that stems from that knowledge. These are the sorts of thoughts that come to mind while watching the film, “Beautiful Thing”.
The movie tells the story of Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal), two high school students from the low-income, working-class neighborhood of Thamesmead, London. Jamie lives with Sandra (Linda Henry), his tough and strong-willed mother whose lack of sentimentality and sometimes-iffy parenting skills cannot hide the fierce love she feels for her only child. Sandra works at a pub and dreams of one day becoming manager of her own establishment. Ste lives next door with his older brother and alcoholic father, both of whom are far too wiling to leave him with bruises at the slightest provocation (burnt tea, a few dirt stains on some shoes, etc.). The tenement in which they all live is cramped and possessed of paper-thin walls, so everyone there pretty much knows everyone else’s business.
Jamie and Ste attend the same gym class – when Jamie actually goes, which is rarely, because of the taunting he receives. (Unlike Ste, Jamie is neither very athletic nor particularly well-liked.) Sandra is aware to some degree of Jamie’s social difficulties at school, but doesn’t know how to help. She is also aware of what Ste goes through at home, but there she can help, at least temporarily: On occasions when things become particularly bad with his father and brother, Sandra has Ste share Jamie’s room for the night.
And therein lies the rub. A back rub, to be precise, as one night Jamie applies some lotion to Ste’s abused back after Ste reluctantly shows him his most recent bruises. Thankfully, the moment is not treated at all salaciously. Nor is the physical intimacy which, by the end of the night, follows the emotional intimacy that has been established between them. What we see is all appropriately – almost achingly – tender and emotionally vulnerable, focusing as much on how they each respond to the abuse Ste has endured as on the romantic and sexual feelings coming to the fore for both of them. The remainder of the film focuses on how the two characters deal with their budding relationship: The excitement and joy of first love, the uncertainty that it’s felt as strongly by the other party, the frustration of having to keep it secret, and the fear and anxiety when certain people find out.
One of the great pleasures of this film is the way Jamie and Ste’s relationship rings true emotionally, as a result of Berry’s and Neal’s performances. (Particularly Berry’s portrayal of Jamie, on whom the film focuses a bit more.) We see them as two sweet, essentially innocent kids taught by circumstances to stay closed off from much of the world, but almost desperate, beneath it all, to open up to each other. It was gratifying to see how much feeling the actors were able to convey without dialogue, or in addition to it. (I do not know what portion of these successful portrayals is due to director Hettie Macdonald, but it seems likely her able direction was an integral part of the process.)
Regarding Jonathan Harvey’s writing, at no point did I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s not what someone would do in that situation!” From Jamie shoplifting a gay magazine so he and Ste can read it together, to their uncertainty about how to act together at a party, to both of them sneaking away on the bus to go to The Gloucester (a gay pub), everything they do feels essentially believable. (Though see below regarding the final scene.)
The second great pleasure of the film is Linda Henry’s portrayal of Sandra: Undeniably low-brow, but intelligent and more caring than she’d probably be comfortable admitting. And fiercely determined to improve her lot in life despite, at times, feeling completely out of her depth and at the mercy of her circumstances. I couldn’t help but like Sandra, and admire her despite her shortcomings. More importantly, I believed in Sandra. Henry is so committed in her portrayal that I couldn’t not believe in her, just as I couldn’t not believe in Jamie and Ste. Even the most emotionally charged moments, such as Sandra’s confrontation with Jamie after following him to the Gloucester, come across with the proper emotional resonance: Jamie’s desperate need not to lose Ste and his despairing certainty that he himself will be rejected by Sandra; and Sandra’s flailing attempts not to reject Jamie, despite not knowing how to accept what she has discovered.
The two main supporting characters are Tony (Ben Daniels) and Leah (Tameka Empson). Tony is Sandra’s somewhat younger and slightly hippie-ish boyfriend. Though a decent enough fellow, he is too laid back for his own good, lacking either the desire to improve his situation or the willingness to do what it takes. We never learn what he does for a living, but it doesn’t really matter. Just as he doesn’t really seem to matter to those around him as much as he probably should. He just doesn’t seem …alive… enough to be seen against the stark light cast by the lives of those around him. (None of which should be taken as a criticism of Daniels’ portrayal, which is sound. Tony is supposed to be this way, so Sandra’s strength of will shows even more clearly, in comparison.)
In contrast to Tony, the character of Leah has far too much personality for her own good. Around Ste and Jamie’s age, she is self-centered and abrasive, and obsessed with the life and music of Mama Cass to the point of caricature. (As well as being more than a little slutty, according to most of the other characters.) Leah might be the type of person who’s fun to hang out with once every week or two, but in the close quarters of the tenement she’s first and foremost a pain to just about everyone. She does, however, lend the movie some of its comedic moments, as well as its excuse to make good use of The Mamas & The Papas’ music. And that makes up for a lot. (As does Empson’s portrayal, which does manage to make Leah rather engaging – as long as I don’t have to live near her.)
Despite what I said above about the believability with which Jamie & Ste’s story is presented, one can reasonably debate the believability – or at least the practicality – of what they do in the final scene. (Without giving away the details, I’ll merely say that it’s not a tragic ending, and that taking the simple, understated action they do would require more courage than many of us had, at that age.) But for me, it works. It is a not-unreasonable culmination of what the two have gone through individually, and of what they have learned together: That the really good things are worth fighting for. That it’s a waste of time worrying about what other people think. And that with a little effort, life (like this movie) can indeed be a beautiful thing.