Beautiful Thing (15) is a film so good and so captivating that if you do not see it, you will find yourself unable to make intelligent dinner party conversation for at least the next six months. The story is romantic without being sickly, realistic without being depressing, fantastic while remaining down to earth.
Successful plays do not always make successful films. Jeffrey was stronger off-Broadway than at the multiplex and lost some of its focus as it was expanded to filmic proportions. Beautiful Thing, directed by Hettie Macdonald who also directed it during its successful stage runs, has expanded it to make it more comfortable rather than gratuitously roomy.
Jamie (Glen Berry) is a moody 16-year-old who is harrassed so much at games that he walks out frequently, ending up at home watching old movies. He is tolerated at neighbourhood pick-up football games but only as long as he is the guy who owns the ball. He speaks only barely to his ambitious barmaid mother, (Linda Henry), and hangs out occasionally with his neighbour Leah (Tameka Empson), who has a near fatal interest in Mama Cass and blasts the neighbourhood periodically with her idol's plaintive wails. With his other neighbour, Ste (Scott Neal), Jamie trades innocent glances, the kind of glances that neither one of them fully understands.
While Jamie is quiet in a geeky troubled way and Leah is a loud-mouthed lunatic, Ste is quiet in a cool way keeping his cards close to his chest and appearing tough.
They are the trinity of their corner of the housing estate. Their home is a ugly set of Thamesmead concrete blocks that is, as is strongly implied by the opening shot, the low-rent end of the rainbow. The pot of gold is at the other end. They are not life's winners. They are life's just-trying-to-get-by kids.
Much of the action takes place in Jamie's bedroom and in the outdoor hallway that links their flats. They don't really have to go outside though. The walls are paper thin. They can hear each other yelling. They know each other's secrets. They can practically hear each other breathing. Under the summer sun, the temperature of the concrete rises and tempers start to flare.
It is Ste's abusive alcoholic father, whose temper has hit the danger zone, who inadvertently brings Ste and Jamie together. His violence increases to the point where it is no longer safe for Ste to stay, and he winds up being invited by Jamie's mother to share Jamie's bedroom, sleeping top to tail in his single bed. Jamie initially suffers the insomnia of platonically sharing a bed with someone that he is massively attracted to. There is no magical embrace when love comes through. They do not just fall into each other's arms as soon as the lights are turned off for the night.
Slowly, the romance builds, and it is in this slow elegant construction of a coming of age story and first love that Jonathan Harvey's script is most successful. All too often movies about teenagers make the audience feel like they missed something during their adolescent years either finding true love or drinking until puking. Film teenagers tend to be shallow party animals whose biggest crisis is what to wear. This film practically makes 16 look enjoyable without over-romanticising or over-simplifying.
The story addresses difficult issues like coming out, education and physical abuse without being preachy or dealing with extremes. It treats realistically the milestones in the coming out process from buying your first gay magazine - in this case a copy of Gay Times from spring 1995 - to the first kiss, the first rejection, first visit to a gay bar and coming out to your mum. None of the main characters are stereotypical. They are human with flaws and and complex personalities. Ste and Jamie are moderately handsome and rugged without being pretty, subtly charming without being ingratiating. They look like typical boys next door.
This film has a Four Weddings And a Funeral type feel to it in the way that the strong ensemble cast creates a story that has something for everyone. Beautiful Thing is about two teenage boys coming out together and falling in love. It is also about a mum accepting her gay son and straight people accepting their gay friends.
Go see it or wait a good year before your next dinner party.
Beautiful Thing (Hettie Macdonald, UK 1996, 90 minutes) opens in London on June 14th and nationally on June 21st
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Victoria Stagg Elliott is a British/American freelance journalist and photographer. If you would like to purchase the rights to this article or find out about others available (she also takes assignments), please e-mail her at email@example.com