Beautiful Thing is a 1996 British film directed by Hettie MacDonald and released
by Channel 4 Films. The screenplay was written
by Jonathan Harvey based on his own original play of the same name. Initially, the film was only intended for
television broadcast but it was so well-received that it was released in
cinemas. The atmosphere of the film is heavily influenced by a soundtrack
consisting almost entirely of the work of Mama Cass Elliot.
The story is
set and filmed on Thamesmead, a working class area of South East London
dominated by post-war council estates.
Jamie (Glen Berry),
a teen who is infatuated with his classmate, Ste, has to deal with his single
mother Sandra (Linda Henry), who is pre-occupied with ambitious plans to run
her own pub and
with an ever-changing string of lovers, the latest of whom is Tony (Ben Daniels),
Sandra finds herself at odds with Leah (Tameka Empson),
a sassy and rude neighbour who has been expelled from school, does several
drugs, and constantly listens and sings along to her mother's Cass Elliot records.
While Jamie's homosexuality remains concealed, his introvert nature and
dislike of football are reason enough for his classmates to bully him at every
Ste (Scott Neal),
who is living together with his drug-dealing brother and abusive, alcoholic
father in the flat next door, is one night beaten by his brother so badly that
Sandra takes pity and lets him sleep over. In the absence of a third bed, Ste
has to make do with sleeping 'top-to-toe' with Jamie. On the second night they
share a bed: after a massage and a minor conversation, the boys soon change
sleeping arrangements and Jamie kisses Ste for the first time.
The next morning, Ste panics and
leaves before Jamie awakens, avoiding him for days. Jamie works up the nerve to
steal a Gay Times from
a newsagent, apparently starting to accept his sexuality and affection for Ste.
Jamie finally spots Ste at a nearby party and confronts him; they prepare to
leave together. The party ends badly, with Sandra taking vengeance on Leah for
gossiping, who then threatens to 'spill the beans' about Ste and Jamie and confesses
to having covered up for Ste in front of his father and brother. Ste reacts
poorly, angrily rejecting Jamie and running away.
Slowly, Ste accepts Jamie's love and
their relationship begins to develop as they visit a gay pub together.
Sandra follows them and discovers their secret, and the film reaches its climax
as a bad trip by
Leah (on an unnamed drug) precipitates Sandra's breakup with Tony; the news of
Sandra's new job comes out; and Sandra confronts Ste and Jamie. Sandra comes to
accept her son's relationship.
The film ends with the two boys
slow-dancing in the courtyard of their council flats to the Cass Elliot song
"Dream a Little Dream of Me", while a
guarding Sandra dances defiantly at their side with Leah as the local residents
look on; some of them shocked, some of them enjoying the moment themselves.
For better or for worse, most
gay-themed motion pictures have a political ax to grind. And, while that might appeal
to those who enjoy movies that espouse a cause, it doesn't always make for the
most entertaining movie. In may ways, therefore, Hettie Macdonald's feature
debut, Beautiful Thing, is a breath of fresh air. Instead of politicizing
the issue of two adolescent boys' homosexuality, it keeps the story intimate,
and, even on those occasions when the tale strays into over-familiar dramatic
territory, Beautiful Thing remains steadfastly faithful to the
characters it has created.
The central story is handled with warmth and intelligence. The
relationship between Jamie and Ste comes across as surprisingly heartfelt yet
unsentimental. There's all the angst and uncertainty one would expect from boys
struggling with a foreign sexual identity, recognizing that if they choose what
comes naturally, they will face society's contempt. But this is also a case of
first love for both of the principals, each of whom, in addition to facing
their homosexuality, must struggle with the distress and rapture of a
passionate adolescent infatuation. Macdonald, with more than a little help from
two skilled young actors, Glen Berry and Scott Neal, manages to capture the
nuances of the situation, exploring the emotional complexity of the
circumstances without resorting to melodrama.
Unfortunately, Beautiful Thing has a plethora of
subplots, none of which comes close to the main story in terms of richness or
sensitivity. Jamie's stormy relationship with his mother represents the kind of
dysfunctional family situation that has become a motion picture cliche. The
same is true for Ste's interaction with his father and brother. A neighborhood
girl, Leah (Tameka Empson), initially looks like she might play an important
part in the film, but she ends up in a supporting role, offering occasional
comic relief and providing much of the soundtrack as a result of her obsession
with Mama Cass (of the Mamas and Papas). Despite having the potential to be Beautiful
Thing's most interesting character, she remains severely underdeveloped and
underused. Finally, there's Sandra's hippie boyfriend, Tony (Ben Daniels),
who's a font of goodwill and stale platitudes.
The acting, as we have come to expect from British films, is solid
from top to bottom. Berry and Neal effectively convey their characters'
situation to the audience, allowing us to share in the complicated web of
wonder and pain that they experience as they come to terms with their identity.
Tameka Empson is delightful as the off-the-wall druggie Leah. Meanwhile, as
Sandra, Linda Henry is a portrait of caged energy as a woman who loves her son
but fears that she's an inadequate mother.
Beautiful Thing uses numerous conventions of urban dramas and
forbidden love stories in its framework, but, because Macdonald keeps the focus
intimately on Jamie and Ste, the result is still satisfying. Only the ending,
which gives a false sense of closure to an otherwise well-balanced narrative,
feels wrong. Otherwise, Beautiful Thing represents a keen, personal
look at the difficulties of growing up gay in a heterosexual world.