REVIEW – ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is familiar and predictable but very hard to resist

Almost three decades ago, one little Aussie film sought to put drag culture on the map. And it succeeded. The unassuming camp classic that is The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert became a cultural phenomenon and the art of drag was celebrated on screen like never before. With the recent success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose, drag culture has edged into the mainstream while still retaining its nonconformist sensibilities.

Entering this new celebratory world of everything drag comes Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the glittery, fluffy, and endlessly optimistic film adaptation of the hit West End musical you’ve probably never heard of. With a dash of Kinky Boots, a sprinkle of The Prom, and (for better or worse) musical numbers that elicit memories of High School Musical and Glee, it’s all very familiar and predictable. But the rarity of seeing a queer coming-of-age story on screen is always something to celebrate and this film’s infectious joy and positivity is ultimately very hard to resist.

Inspired by the 2011 BBC documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie centres on flamboyant 16-year-old Jamie New (an impressive debut from Max Harwood), an out and proud teenager living in the dreary English town of Sheffield. Dreaming of one day becoming a fierce drag queen like those he sees in glamour shots on Instagram, Jamie is wholly supported by his adoring single mother, Margaret (a terrific Sarah Lancashire) who happily purchases her son his first pair of sparkling ruby-red stiletto heels for his 16th birthday.

While his pessimistic high school careers advisor Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) foolishly attempts to convince Jamie to have more realistic expectations for his future career, his ever-supportive “Muslim girl with a Hindu first name” BFF Pritti Pasha (the tremendously lovable Lauren Patel) has his back. As a hijab-clad overachieving student, Pritti innately understands feeling ostracised from her classmates, so the pair are naturally total soul mates.

But every drag queen in training needs a drag mother, and young Jamie discovers his mentor in the form of Hugo Battersby (a typically marvellous Richard E. Grant), a former drag legend known as Miss Loco Channel who now runs Sheffield’s only drag attire emporium, House of Loco. As Hugo helps Jamie uncover his drag persona, the youngster soon becomes determined to make his official public drag debut on prom night and no one will stand in his way.

With such a potentially dramatic plot, you’d be remiss in thinking Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a film loaded with obstacles and hindrances for its protagonist to overcome. In actuality, it’s a film almost completely devoid of any true conflict. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for wide-eyed Jamie. He suffers homophobic bullying at the hands of insecure school bully Dean (Samuel Bottomley), but Jamie is so comfortable in his sexuality, he confidently swats it away by cooly spinning Dean’s words against him. Jamie craves approval from his distant father, Wayne (Ralph Ineson), but it’s a subplot that feels too underdeveloped to really land an impact.

This isn’t a coming-out story, but rather a portrait of a confident young gay man’s evolution into something else entirely. The only genuine conflict comes from Jamie’s journey of acceptance of the drag persona who’s been bubbling under the surface his entire life. It’s an interesting deviation from typical young queer narratives filled with angst over sexuality and the fear of being outed. But it does force director Jonathan Butterell and writer Tom MacRae into taking a surprisingly optimistic view of life for the next generation of queer kids.

Even after decades of progress for the LGBTQ community, it still takes incredible courage and bravery for a man to step out in high heels and a dress. There’s immense joy in watching Jamie find his confidence in the foreign world of drag, particularly with someone as deliciously fabulous as Hugo by his side. It might all be very superficial and everything works out far too smoothly, but it’s an unashamed celebration of queer culture and lord knows we still need that in cinema.

With a white-blond bob, piercingly sharp features, and a fiery attitude, Harwood shines in his first acting gig with a character that fits him like a glove. Much like any moody teenager, there are moments Jamie will frustrate an audience with his tempestuous behaviour, but Harwood is so damn engaging that it’s hard not to fall under Jamie’s cheeky spell, especially when he breaks the fourth wall as if he’s staring you right in the eyes. His confidence in a debut performance is wildly impressive and Hardwood easily captures both Jamie’s fierce courage and crushing vulnerability. And the boy can effortlessly walk in a pair of gargantuan heels like they’re flip flops.

Lancashire is perfectly cast as Jamie’s devoted mother, bringing such gorgeous warmth and genuine sincerity to the best kind of maternal figure a queer kid could ask for. Newcomer Patel is an endearing delight as Jamie’s adorkable best pal who pushes him to follow his dreams with lines like, “Stop waiting for permission to be you.” It’s wonderful to see a young Muslim character portrayed as someone who ultimately owns her identity and heritage as proudly as her gay best friend. Frankly, I was just as invested in Pritti as I was in Jamie.

But it should come as no surprise it’s Grant who steals this film with another poignant, hilarious performance that once again reminds us of the travesty that was his 2018 Oscar loss for Can You Ever Forgive Me?. It’s not Grant’s film, so his sparing use is understandable, but you will long for more of Hugo and, of course, Loco. We know Grant can do sharp, biting wit in his sleep and Butterell takes full advantage in letting the actor capture focus whenever he pleases. His chemistry with Harwood is charming and the two make for a dynamic duo whose characters fuse the past and present of queer expression.

As an elder of the queer community, Hugo serves as Jamie’s guide to gay history by virtue of a tour into the past through a VHS recording of his tragic younger years in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Through the performance of the beautiful new song “This Was Me,” the film touches on moments like the death of Freddie Mercury and Princess Diana’s empathy in hospital rooms as the gay rights movement begins to take flight. It’s one of the rare times the film has the courage to offer something more than glitz and glamour and stands as a pertinent reminder to the next gay generation of the pain, tragedy, and danger their forefathers endured to secure the freedom they can sometimes take for granted.

The soundtrack of musical numbers is a mix of boppy show tunes and weepy power ballads that may not quite match the best of Broadway but still deliver plenty of audible pleasure. Butterell mostly stages the performances in everyday settings like the school’s cafeteria, classrooms, or hallways that fantastically transform into brightly coloured stages for Jamie and his cohorts to bust a move. The over-the-top staging and twirly choreography feel like something Ryan Murphy or Kenny Ortega would craft, but Harwood and the ensemble cast bring effervescent energy to every moment and it’s hard not to be swept away by it all.

Lancashire is blessed with the film’s best song “He’s My Boy,” an 11 o’clock number where Margaret reflects on her everlasting love for her sometimes frustrating son and the strength she finds from his pride. While Lancashire nails the track, it’s incredibly frustrating her performance is robbed of its potential power by Butterell’s strange decision to use her vocals over a sequence of Jamie getting drunk, donning a dress, and crashing a soccer game his father is attending. Both moments could have injected some much-needed drama amongst the levity, but blending them together leaves them feeling rather tepid.

There’s no doubt something as joyful and celebratory as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was made with nothing but the best of intentions, even if the final result doesn’t reach the pinnacle of the movie musical genre. Its optimism may not be grounded in the gritty realism of other examples of queer cinema, but there’s no rule that says a “gay movie” has to be dour and depressing. There’s enough misery in the world at the moment, so we could all do with a serving of shiny, blissful escapist cinema. It’s a film that honours the freedom of expression queer youth now enjoy and highlights the power that comes from living your most authentic life. We still need films like this in the world.

Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson, Adeel Akhtar, Samuel Bottomley
Director: Jonathan Butterell
Producers: Mark Herbert, Peter Carlton, Arnon Milchan
Screenplay: Tom MacRae
Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Production Design: Jane Levick
Costume Design: Guy Speranza
Editor: Mark Everson
Music: Dan Gillespie Sells, Anne Dudley

Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: 17th September 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)