The last several years have come with a surge of queer coming of age films and television shows, and for good reason. Besides the fact that these stories are both important and (thanks to our society’s long history of homophobia) relatively new to mass audiences, they’re inherently packed with ingredients that make writers salivate. Coming out tales like 2018’s “Love, Simon” have built-in internal and external conflicts, sympathetic protagonists and themes that will resonate with many audience members on a deep, emotional level.
Though not a coming out story per se, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” covers much of the same ground. The musical, an adaptation of a 2017 stage production that was itself based on a 2011 television documentary, tells the story of a British high schooler who confronts opposition from his classmates, teachers and father as he pursues his dream of becoming a drag queen. Though musical numbers are hit-or-miss, the script is right on the money, providing a touching and thoughtful look at a sympathetic protagonist who, like all teenagers, is still figuring out who he wants to be.
From the film’s first scene, Jamie New’s (Max Harwood) bleach blonde fringe, sparkly backpack and bedazzled phone case signal his detachment from the rest of his dreary Sheffield community. Jamie has already come out as gay when we meet him on the morning of his 16th birthday, and while he takes some flack from bullies at school it seems he’s already quite comfortable with that part of himself.
But Jamie has a secret that not even his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) knows about: he wants to be a drag queen. Though he’s been drawn to women’s clothing and makeup since childhood, he doesn’t think his stodgy town would accept the lifestyle he dreams of. Even for the gay kid, he worries, drag is a bridge too far.
But when his unconditionally supportive single mother (Sarah Lancashire) gifts him a pair of glamorous red heels for his birthday, Jamie works up the nerve to tell Pritti, and soon they’ve hatched a scheme to bring Jamie’s drag persona into the world at the school’s prom. But not everyone is on board with the idea, and soon resistance from a teacher (Sharon Horgan) and Jamie’s deadbeat dad (Ralph Ineson) brings the boy’s own self-doubt to a boiling point.
Writer Tom MacRae, who also penned the book for the stage musical, deftly balances the story’s various conflicts. We see that Jamie is able to brush off small moments of hate from bullies even while his father’s neglect slowly eats at him. Importantly, MacRae resists the urge to make Jamie perfect. Instead, he’s often self-centered and occasionally cruel, both when things are going well for him and when he’s at his emotional low points. It’s a depiction of adolescence that feels very true, and it gives Jamie room to grow in the third act. Unlike some coming out stories, which are all about learning to accept yourself, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” addresses a challenge that’s equally universal and even more complex: figuring out how to be the person you want to be.
For Jamie, this involves learning about drag’s history and role in the gay liberation movement. Richard E. Grant steals the show as a veteran drag queen who takes Jamie under his wing, and his lessons double as a helpful guide for viewers who don’t understand the art or the impulses behind it. In fact, the film does an excellent job throughout at educating newbies about drag basics (it’s not a sexual game for Jamie, and he’s not a trans woman). The result is a story that’s equally satisfying for audiences specifically interested in drag and for viewers looking for a general coming of age tale.
But even as “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” succeeds as a story, it falls a little flat as both a piece of cinema and as a musical. The poppy track list contains few standouts, and director Jonathan Butterell doesn’t add much flair with the camera. Highlights like “This Was Me,” which inserts Jamie into grainy home video footage of the gay rights movement, make real use of the medium, but too often the film just feels like a stage musical that someone decided to record.
That will be just fine for fans of musical theater, and the script will be strong enough to keep most others happy. But for those already prejudiced against the genre, the sheer number of forgettable musical interludes may prove enough to spoil the good time.
Watch it if: You’re already a fan of RuPaul’s empire, or you don’t know anything about drag but you’re curious what it’s all about.
Skip it if: You can’t stand musicals.