December 27, 1996 in Seven

The Play’s The Thing ‘Beautiful Thing’ Can’t Fill A Big Screen Like It Did The Stage

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s easier to imagine “Beautiful Thing” working on stage, the medium for which it was originally written, than it does on the big screen.

In opening up Jonathan Harvey’s play, first-time director Hettie Macdonald has created a movie that feels more like an “After School Special” than an adult study of the relationship between an English teenager, his pub-manager mother and the boy next door with whom he falls in love.

The plot couldn’t be more straightforward: Jamie (Glen Berry) lives with his mother, Sandra (Linda Henry), in an apartment complex on the outskirts of London. Picked on at school, Jamie would rather stay at home and watch television.

At home, though, there are other entertainments. He can watch the local dropout, Leah (Tameka Empson), act precociously and indulge her obsession with the music of the late Mama Cass Elliott. Or he can share a joint with Tony (Ben Daniels), his mother’s neo-hippy boyfriend.

Or he can share a bed with Ste (Scott Neal), his schoolmate and next-door neighbor who occasionally, if regularly, stays with Jamie and Sandra to escape the beatings he receives at the hands of his drug-dealing brother and alcoholic father.

In the course of these sleepovers, Jamie’s concern for Ste evolves into love. And Ste, tentatively but gradually, returns the feelings.

The problem then is: What to do next? Come out and face the presumed censure of the neighborhood, or keep their relationship a secret?

There are subplots to fill out the movie’s brief running time, namely Leah’s struggle to find a focus in life, the affair between the 35-year-old Sandra and 27-year-old Tony, and Sandra’s attempt to get a better job as a pub manager. But the focus rests squarely on Jamie and Ste and their growing recognition, and acceptance, of what and whom they are.

The problems, though, are several. For one, “Beautiful Thing” overall is a sensitive look at the issue of adolescent self-identification, but much of it seems confusing.

First of all, the characters speak in a clipped, slang-filled dialect that isn’t easy for an American audience to understand. Then there are the references to Mama Cass. The filmmakers use songs such as “It’s Getting Better” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in a way that’s reminiscent of the ABBA songs in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” They both add to the movie’s subtext and fulfill a kind of Judy Garland-type campiness.

But the character who obsesses on the music is a heterosexual black woman, the reason for which is never made clear. And the happy-feet feel of the tunes don’t work with the movie’s more somber tone (and the film isn’t complex enough in theme for them to work ironically).

Finally, the purpose of the Tony character is never made clear: While clearly a zonked-out creature of privilege, his heart is in the right place. His concern for Sandra seems genuine, but he is viewed, and ultimately treated, like a clown.

At its heart, “Beautiful Thing” does offer a heart-felt message of the need for tolerance. And for gay teens, it does demonstrate the possibility of their sexuality being not only tolerated but accepted.

Of course, transmitting those kinds of inspirational messages are what “After School Specials” do best.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Beautiful Thing” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Hettie Macdonald, starring Glen Berry, Linda Henry, Scott Neal, Tameka Empson and Ben Daniels. Running time: 1:30 Rating: R

2. Other views: Here’s what other critics say about “Beautiful Thing:” Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Though we’ve seen variations on the story many times before, there is enough dimension and brashness in the unusually well-developed adult characters to offset the youthful rapture and make “Beautiful Thing” seem fresher than it should. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: It helps to be a devotee of gay romance and cloyingly upbeat pop music to get any worth out of Hettie Macdonald’s “Beautiful Thing,” but no one can deny the film’s forthright purpose and clarity. Jim Seavor/Providence Journal-Bulletin: “Beautiful Thing” is a film for lovers. It revels in the joy of discovery and celebrates the highs of life without forgetting the lows that often accompany them. It is a film that will leave you smiling.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Beautiful Thing” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Hettie Macdonald, starring Glen Berry, Linda Henry, Scott Neal, Tameka Empson and Ben Daniels. Running time: 1:30 Rating: R

2. Other views: Here’s what other critics say about “Beautiful Thing:” Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Though we’ve seen variations on the story many times before, there is enough dimension and brashness in the unusually well-developed adult characters to offset the youthful rapture and make “Beautiful Thing” seem fresher than it should. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: It helps to be a devotee of gay romance and cloyingly upbeat pop music to get any worth out of Hettie Macdonald’s “Beautiful Thing,” but no one can deny the film’s forthright purpose and clarity. Jim Seavor/Providence Journal-Bulletin: “Beautiful Thing” is a film for lovers. It revels in the joy of discovery and celebrates the highs of life without forgetting the lows that often accompany them. It is a film that will leave you smiling.


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