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.

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