Beautiful Thing is a sweet, subtle slice-of-life drama about the sexual awakening of two gay teenagers whose home lives are less than perfect. Handsome and athletic, Ste (Scott Neal) is neglected and physically abused by his widowed alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother. His neighbor, Jaime (Glen Berry), is a fatherless, extroverted loner with an overprotective and, at times, self-involved mum (Linda Henry), who dotes on him when she’s not busy working at the local pub or hanging out with her live-in stoner boyfriend, Tony (Ben Daniels). The two families live in a South London housing project, an oppressive dwelling which offers its residents little in the way of space or privacy.
Adapted by Jonathan Harvey from his play, Beautiful Thing was produced by Channel Four Films, the now-defunct theatrical arm of Britain’s independent television station which was responsible for some of the best indie films of the 1980s and 1990s. On the surface, Beautiful Thing doesn’t tackle social and political issues in the same overt manner as other Channel Four films, like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Maurice (1987), or Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987). Yet, it does follow in footsteps of these and other gay-/queer-oriented releases by addressing sexual and familial themes in relation to class issues. Furthermore, the film never backs away from the true emotional realities of its young characters as it effectively captures the mixture of elation and pain that often accompany the first time we fall in love.
Since the 1980s, “coming out” stories involving gay teenagers have been a familiar subject on prime time television series, made-for-TV movies, after school specials, and soap operas as well as independent films. Most of these, particularly teen-oriented TV shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dawson’s Creek, have been heavy-handed and emotionally overwrought when its comes to depicting both the inner torment of gay youth as they venture out of the closet and the subsequent shocked reactions of their friends and family. While Beautiful Thing certainly doesn’t make “coming out” look easy, or skirt over the emotional angst of its young protagonists, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Instead, Harvey and first-time director Hettie MacDonald take a refreshingly subtle approach to what has become the now familiar scene in which a teenage boy comes out to his mother. It is, of course, one of the film’s most dramatic moments. Jaime’s mother, Sandra (Linda Henry), who has found a copy of Gay Times>/I> in the apartment, confronts her son, who is riding high (and a little drunk) after spending a night on the town at a gay pub with Ste. (A brilliant character actress best known for her work on British television, Henry plays Sandra like an emotional knot that suddenly, and without warning, starts to unravel.) She is clearly not quite sure how she feels about having a gay son. She is upset he’s gay, but also angry he’s been keeping secrets and deeply saddened that her son is afraid she might reject him.
What makes the scene so complex is knowing that the root of Sandra’s anxiety is not her son’s homosexuality, but her own ongoing struggle to make a better life for them. She is not only scared for what the future holds for Jaime, but for herself as well, especially now that her dream of owning her own pub is becoming a reality. When the government finally provides the financial assistance to make that dream happen, she realizes it is not only economic independence that lies ahead, but also the chance to break free of the dead-end, oppressive world of the projects. By thematically tying Sandra’s economic anxiety to her son’s insecurity about his sexual identity and the possibilities their respective life changing decisions present for the future, screenwriter Harvey creates a common ground for this mother and son who, at last, are really going to experience life.
Her liberation is not unlike what Ste and Jaime are feeling as they move from silently exchanged glances, to enjoying a little off-screen, under-the-covers fooling around, to a twilight romp through the park. In the latter scene, the physical chemistry between the two young performers combined with the dulcimer voice of Mama Cass singing “Move in a Little Closer Baby” convey the couple’s youthfulness and physical attraction as they interrupt their game of tag with kisses and hugs.
Although the film’s tone is not as carefree once their secret is out, Beautiful Thing lives up to its movie poster tagline — “an urban fairytale”– in the film’s final scene when Ste and Jaime, with a little more help from Mama Cass, quietly and tenderly affirm their union. Oblivious to the small crowd of onlookers gathered around them, Ste and Jaime, who is sad he will soon be moving out of the projects and away from his lover, slowly dance together to Cass’ rendition of “Dream a Little Dream.” It is a perfect ending because it not only eloquently captures what it is like to fall head over heels in love for the first time, but also affirms that the love between two gay teenagers can indeed be a most beautiful thing.