Producers: Myles Payne and Sam Ritzenberg  Directors: Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping   Screenplay: Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping   Cast: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, George MacKay, Aaron Heffernan, John McCrea, Asha Reid, Peter Clements, Charley Palmer, Moe Bar-El, Nima Taleghani, Jackson Milner, Anita-Joy Uhrajeh, Antonia Clarke and John Leader   Distributor: Utopia

Grade: B-

Role-playing takes myriad forms in this steamy revenge thriller by writer-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, expanding on their 2021 short film of the same name.  Driven by intense performances from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay, “Femme” packs a punch despite its structural and technical raggedness.

Jules (Stewart-Jarrett) is a drag queen who performs in a London club as flamboyant Aphrodite Banks.  Retreating outside for a smoke, he notices Preston (George McKay) staring at him, but ignores it.  After the show, he goes to a store and is paying for his cigarettes, still in costume, when Preston and his gang come in.  When he tartly counters their insults, he’s badly beaten and left bleeding in the street by Preston, who’s been egged on by voluble crew boss Oz (Aaron Heffernan).  After months of recovery, he still refuses to leave his apartment, despite pleas from his roommate Toby (John McCrea) and their friend Alicia (Asha Reid) that he has to overcome his trauma and live again rather than simply playing videogames alone.

Finally, Jules ventures out to a gay sauna, where, in a remarkable coincidence, he sees Preston in an altercation with another man.  Following him into the locker room, he’s surprised when Preston invites him outside and then, after making certain they’re unobserved, to his apartment, where they engage in rough sex; naturally Preston doesn’t recognize him.  When they’re interrupted by the arrival of Oz and the rest of the gang, Preston explains Jules as a cellmate from a recent prison stay, and over time he’s accepted by the gang, largely because of his skill at a favorite video game.  It gives the two men cover to continue their affair in secret over restaurant meals and bedroom sessions.

Jules’s intention in all this is to film himself having sex with Preston and then post the video online as revenge for the assault.  Of course, things don’t go quite as he plans, and when Toby innocently invites Preston to a birthday party being thrown for Jules in connection with his return to the stage as Aphrodite, a confrontation is inevitable.

Both Stewart-Jarrett and McKay are excellent here, the one broodingly intense and the other alternately upbeat, surly and prone to menacing outbursts.  Both are able to add intriguing emotional notes to their characters as the men gradually develop a deeper emotional connection that complicates both Jules’s desire for revenge and Preston’s obsession with circumspection; by the end their attitudes have become complex.  Among the supporting cast, McCrea stands out as a young man whose concern for Jules carries a degree of shy infatuation, and Heffernan makes a straightforwardly crass villain.  The others fill this eclectic world convincingly, though sometimes unsubtly. 

The overall feel of the film, however, lacks finesse.  The rhythm of individual scenes is often clumsy; in excited moments (the opening beating, the closing confrontation) James Rhodes’s grainy cinematography is jagged, with a tendency to favor overpowering closeups, and at such times Selina Macarthur’s editing grows hectic, making for messiness of both composition and motion.  Other sequences, though, come off as stodgy.  Both Christopher Melgram’s production design and Buki Ebiesuwa’s costumes contribute to a moodily grim atmosphere, though Ebiesuwa gets to show off in Aphrodite’s extravagant turns; the gloominess of Adam Janota Bzowski’s metallic score adds to an atmosphere that, while somber, always retains a threatening undercurrent.

Though flawed, “Femme” presents an intriguingly layered if calculated tale of a gay relationship that begins and ends in violence but suggests a good deal more in between.