Producers: Mark Herbert, Peter Carlton and Arnon Milchan Director: Jonathan Butterell Screenplay: Tom MacRae Cast: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson, Adeel Akhtar and Samuel Bottomley Distributor: Amazon Studios
Colorful and good-natured but exceedingly predictable and formulaic, this fact-based parable of acceptance plays like something you remember having seen before.
Based on a 2017 London stage musical by director Jonathan Butterell, screenwriter/lyricist Tom MacRae and composer Dan Gillespie Sells, which in turn had been inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary titled “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” it’s the story of Jamie Campbell (renamed Jamie New here), a teen who’s not only come out as gay in the northern English town of Sheffield but is determined to become a drag queen. He also causes a ruckus by announcing that he plans to attend the school’s end-of-the-year dance in drag.
The picture opens with Jamie, played with relish by newcomer Max Harwood, celebrating his birthday with his ever-supportive mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and her bosom friend Ray (Shobna Gulati). Conspicuously absent is Wayne (Ralph Ineson), Jamie’s father, who abandoned him and Margaret and has never been able to accept his son’s unmanly ways.
Jamie also has a nemesis at school in Dean (Samuel Bottomley), the campus bully who exults in entertaining his chums by insulting him. There’s compensation in the friendship of Pritti (Lauren Patel), who urges Jamie to be true to who he is, but a disappointing lack of support from Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), the practically-minded guidance counselor who dismisses Jamie’s dreams as unrealistic, and becomes a chief opponent of his desire to wear a dress to the dance.
The script also makes way for a flamboyant mentor—Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who was once himself a drag queen called Loco Chanelle and now runs a shop (always unoccupied except for him and Jamie, it seems) specializing in outfits for the performers whose ranks Jamie aspires to join. A number for him, using “home movies” as well as music to sketch his life, is a nifty means of outlining how much more difficult it once was to realize the dream that Jamie now has—a point recently made in another picture, Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song.”
The film ends up, as you might expect, at the prom, where the opposition to Jamie’s attending as he wishes melts away and the villains abruptly mellow. Even Dean turns out to be not malicious at all but simply misunderstood and fearful of the future. The only figure who doesn’t come around is Mr. New, who though unreconciled to his son’s choices is kept discreetly offscreen, so as not to disturb the happy amity that has come to dominate.
The scene is reminiscent of the conclusion of “The Prom,” last year’s Netflix adaptation of a Broadway musical, though in that case the supposed scandal involved two girls wanting to go to the dance together rather than a boy wanting to wear a dress.
Along the way to that comforting finale, the picture makes the various spots you might expect—soliloquies for the principals, exhilarating ensemble dance numbers, choreographed by Kate Prince, as Jamie struts his stuff either proclaiming his goals or dreaming about their realization, opportunities for other characters—Pritti, for example—to express their frustration about being outsiders too, even as they circle around Jamie. There’s even a sequence in which established drag queens bolster the newcomer’s confidence that might remind you of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from “Gypsy.” Sells’ pop-inflected music and MacRae’s repetitive lyrics are pleasant without being particularly memorable, but they allow for a good deal of crowd-pleasing moments. (Anne Dudley composed the background score.)
The cast work diligently to put it all across the footlights, as it were. Harwood is the catalyst here, and he’s up to the task—a real find. He’s ably supported by Lancashire (who brings some welcome nuance to Margaret), the gently affectionate Patel, and Grant, who brings his patented extravagance to Battersby. Unfortunately the talented Horgan is wasted in a thankless part.
Butterell keeps the show moving along, but allows for moments of introspection for Jamie that add some depth to his struggle to follow Pritti’s encouragement to find the strength to be himself. The technical team does its job, too, with Jane Levick’s production design and Guy Speranza’s costumes setting off Jamie’s couture against the blander, duller realities of Sheffield and cinematographer Christopher Ross working with the director in fashioning some striking images, as when Jamie looks back on his childhood from the present or dances atop a wall in his back yard. Mark Everson’s editing doesn’t spoil the musical numbers with overcutting as is so often the case nowadays.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is likable and exuberant, but simply feels too familiar to be much more than a nice way to pass the time.