A pep-talk nightmare: Everybody's Talking About Jamie reviewed

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

18 September 2021

9:00 AM

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

12A, Selected Cinemas, and available on Amazon Prime

It’s a hard heart that doesn’t warm to the musical drama Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. I don’t have a hard heart, and I was warmed, but I also have an impatient heart and my patience was sometimes tested. There’s a point in this film where you might, for example, be asking yourself: do we really need yet another song about empowerment set in the school canteen? Or: can we not have another a pep talk about being true to yourself? On reflection, I would say my heart was only around 42 per cent warmed, at a guess.

The starting point for the whole Jamie phenomenon was a BBC3 documentary about a working-class 16-year-old from Sheffield, Jamie Campbell, who aspired to be a drag queen and wanted to go to his school prom in a dress. This was in 2011, before gender or RuPaul or any of that was part of the conversation, and he’d been bullied and insulted all his life, and it’s remarkable. (The original documentary is also on Amazon.) It was adapted for the stage by the writer and lyricist Tom MacRae, with music by Dan Gillespie Sells, and opened at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield before transferring to the West End and then other cities all over the world. It is very big in Japan.

This film adaptation has the same director as the stage version (Jonathan Butterell) while newcomer Max Harwood, who is utterly beguiling, plays Jamie. Jamie lives with his unfailingly supportive mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire, who provides most of the film’s emotional heft), while desperately seeking the approval of his appalled, deadbeat father. (‘Boys should do boy things,’ says Dad.) Jamie is openly gay but only his mother, his mother’s best friend (Shobna Gulati), and his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) know of his dream, which is born when Margaret gives him a pair of red glittery high heels for his birthday. He knows what he must do: he must come out at the school prom. But does he have the courage?

This has some good tunes — I think; hard to know on a first outing — veering from fizzing pop to soulful ballads and it is filled with energy, hope, glitter and high-kicking choreography, some of which doesn’t happen in the school canteen, but often does. However, what it most lacks is narrative oomph. Aside from the predestined outcome, the film feels as if it’s said all it has to say quite early. Thereafter it’s like being caught in some never-ending loop. It’s either Jamie saying he will be attending the prom in a dress, and someone saying he shouldn’t, or it’s Jamie saying he’s not attending the prom in the dress, and someone saying he should. (Pritti: ‘Jamie, stop waiting for permission to be you.’) It’s a pep-talk nightmare, this film.

It also asks little of the audience. When Pritti receives an affectionate hug from her father, for example, do we have to cut to a prolonged close-up of Jamie welling up? Can’t we be trusted to understand that’s what he wants from his father? As for Dean, the school bully, are we really meant to buy his redemption?

This doesn’t have the cojones of a Billy Elliot, say, because the secondary characters are all so one-dimensional. That said, I am always happy to watch Sharon Horgan, who plays the careers teacher who wants her class to dream small — hey, kids, there’s work at the abattoir! — just as I am always happy watching Richard E. Grant, who appears as Jamie’s drag mentor, looks terrific in a frock, steals the show, and gets to sing the most moving number. The film has its heart in the right place. It is rousing in parts, and warming in parts, but will also will leave you cold in parts. To the tune of around 58 per cent.

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