Why Beautiful Thing is a beautiful thing
One of our two new main page articles today is Brian Juergens' look back at the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing. For those already familiar with this funny, but touching coming of age tale, the article is a nice reminder about what made the movie so special. And for those who haven't yet seen this small-budget, big-hearted movie, Brian's look back is a great introduction to the film.
I clearly remember how much I loved it on first viewing. It was one of the first movies I ever saw with gay teens in it that approached anything to which I could personally relate my own experiences growing up. Yes, Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal) have to struggle with their sexuality, but they aren't suicidal, addicted to drugs, or out on the street hustling. I know that is the fate of too many gay youth, but it wasn't my experience and it was wonderful to see two boys fumbling toward a relationship. Okay, I never got that far at the same age, but it was nice wish fulfillment to see someone getting that happy ever after ending.
As a bonus the movie features out actor Ben Daniels in a terrific supporting role. You might remember Daniels from our coverage of the recent BBC America miniseries The State Within.The Article:
Looking Back at "Beautiful Thing"
In 1996 a quiet little film from across the pond about a love affair between two working-class, young British men made its way to American shores. Avoiding a battery of clichés and focusing on the journey of its two teen protagonists and the community in which they lived, Beautiful Thing captured the attention and hearts of American audiences, gay and straight alike.
Jamie Gangel (Glen Berry) is a teenage boy who lives with his overwrought bartender mother in a London high-rise housing project. Jamie has few friends and is picked on by the other boys at school; he's not flamboyantly gay or even terribly noticeable, but the other boys take advantage of his sensitivity as an opportunity to attack.
Jamie's universe is limited primarily to his apartment (where he likes watching old, romantic Hollywood movies) and the area immediately outside of it, which is populated by an assortment of interesting — and volatile — characters. His mom, Sandra (Linda Henry), is a straight-talking, chain-smoking, hard-drinking woman who shoots from the hip and apparently goes through boyfriends faster than cartons of smokes. Her latest flame, misplaced surfer dude Tony (openly gay actor Ben Daniels), is a much mellower sort and seems to genuinely care for both Sandra and Jamie, although both of them are a bit too hardened to really notice.
On one side of this odd trio lives Leah Russell (Tameka Empson), a teenage black girl obsessed with Mama Cass who, when not blasting the music of The Mamas and the Papas on the balcony, is usually twisted on ecstasy or drunk. On the other side lives Jamie's schoolmate Ste Pearce (Scott Neal), a sporty youth who receives regular beatings from both his alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother. When Sandra comes across a bruised and crying Ste by the river one night, she takes him into her home, and the relationship between Ste and Jamie changes dramatically.
Beautiful Thing is by no means a perfect movie. But much like the budding love of its protagonists, the film represents something daring and, well, beautiful for gay film: It focuses on teenagers. Beautiful Thing was one of the first gay films that many moviegoers saw that dealt with coming-of-age and coming to grips with one's sexuality all at once, and it did so with humor and uncommon sensitivity. The fact that the film could handle the complex subject of gay youth so well without condescending to or objectifying its teen leads is something remarkable in and of itself.
That said, Beautiful Thing — based on Jonathan Harvey's play of the same name — is decidedly TV movie-like, and it seems to be driven primarily by a fantasy logic based on wish fulfillment. There are a number of realities that the film doesn't bother with, including Ste's family's reaction to his sexuality; the fact that Jamie and his mother are essentially moving away; and Sandra's bizarre snubbing of Tony, who has been nothing but supportive. Ultimately, those don't matter because they're not the focus.
The focus is on the connection between these two young men trying to forge a relationship against all odds. Indeed, the moments where the movie truly sings are the moments when Jamie and Ste embrace, dance, kiss and connect. The message of the film — foreshadowed by the rainbow that appears at the beginning — is that despite the noise and the fear and the problems and the probing neighbors, you can find something special to transport you away from the aspects of life from which you want to escape.
While that is somewhat like believing that if you close your eyes, it will go away, it is fine for this movie and its goals. The complications of gay love — or any love, really — are left to films with steeper agendas.
Beautiful Thing is happy with its kitchen-sink drama and flights of fancy, which include grin-inducing musical sequences (set to The Mamas and the Papas, of course) and a scene where Jamie and Ste go to a gay bar to see a drag show. In his review of the film upon its release, Roger Ebert took issue with this particular scene (although he liked the film overall), noting:
To begin with, no London teenager is going to be completely in the dark about homosexuality. Not in these times. Nor are most 16-year-olds going to find much amusing in a pub full of older men, many of them in drag, a lot of them drunk. Teenagers of any sexuality seek others their age, think 30-year-olds are "old,'' and might be a little slow to dig middle-aged men doing Barbra Streisand imitations. … [T]his pub is not going to be the answer to Jamie and Ste's search, and yet there are times, I swear, when the movie actually seems to think that once you come out of the closet, you head straight for the pub and live there happily for the rest of your life.
Ebert's critique is spoken like a man who never had to go digging for a group that he fit into. The truth is, many gay men do "come into their own" in gay bars and pubs, because those are the only places in their community where gay people congregate openly — especially in 1996. There was no gay student group or gay community alliance in the boys' working-class neighborhood for them to join.
The film's focus on Jamie and Ste's finding each other and their new place in the working-class community is what makes Beautiful Thing such a rewarding and memorable experience. This is one of the first widely seen stories of young gay love that took place in the working class. There is no gauzy, Merchant-Ivory romanticism or period details to make the story seem distant or allegorical. These are kids that most of us know (or even were ourselves), in familiar settings with familiar conflicts and concerns — although most of us fortunately never had a neighbor who hallucinated that she was Mama Cass and wandered into traffic.
The film is also unique in that it admitted that gay men don't get a free pass when it comes to their relationships with their mothers. Many gay films seem to suggest that mothers welcome their gay sons with open arms, no questions asked. While many gay men may have had smoother relationships with their mothers than their fathers while coming out, it is by no means a hard-and-fast rule.
In Beautiful Thing, when Sandra learns that Jamie might be gay, she hits the roof and doesn't come down easily. By contrast, easygoing Tony adjusts to the news much more quickly. Sandra's at times overwhelming concern for her son — and the fact that she's been the boy's sole caregiver for his entire life — clouds her ability to see the pain that he's going through. It's not until she has seen the comfort and strength that Jamie's newfound relationship provides him that she is able to come to terms with his gay identity.
Looking back at the film after 11 years, it still holds up as an endearing, funny and very sweet movie of first love overcoming the odds, and the poster's cheeky tagline, "An Urban Fairytale," still holds true. Most critics agreed that the film's good nature outweighed its drawbacks. Is it unabashedly optimistic? Sure. Does it stumble over uneven acting, overly earnest dialogue and budget limitations? Of course. Does it have enough unfinished story threads to weave a nice-sized handkerchief? It certainly does.
But the moments when the two lead characters find solace in one another's arms, eyes and hearts more than outweigh the film's shortcomings. And while the unlikely resolution concedes that this journey is far from over, it leaves us comforted that these two young men and their loved ones are going to be all right.
For viewers not used to seeing such a breezy, inspiring look at first love, that's a beautiful thing, indeed.