Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Jules in drag. Courtesy of Signature Films

The screening: “Femme,” directed by Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman and starring Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay, screening at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, Space, 538 Congress St., Portland; $10/$7 for Space members

The genre: Movies are exceptional vehicles for a message. Cinema’s uniquely intimate, collaborative blend of acting, music, script and visuals make for a potently persuasive form of entertainment and, in the hands of a filmmaker with something to say, a well-made movie can function as a way to change minds.

But the trap of being an “issue movie” is that message trumps artistry. What emerges then – no matter the nobleness of cause or assiduous efforts of all involved – is strident and forgettable. As much as we as audiences throng to the movies to be swept away by the big screen experience, the merest whiff of being manipulated deflates our enthusiasm.

There are myriad well-intentioned films whose sloganeering consigns them to forgotten mediocrity. Best Picture winners “Green Book” and “Crash” (message “racism is bad”) became almost instantaneous punchlines, while studios occasionally trot out a picture about trans and gay people (“Transamerica,” “The Danish Girl,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”) starring comfortingly and resolutely straight actors.

The plot: The story of a luminous drag performer Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who sets out on a dangerous and conflicted path of revenge after he’s brutally gay-bashed by a gang of London toughs led by thuggish, tattooed Preston (George MacKay), the film never quite goes where we imagine. The initial hate crime comes before the opening title. In the aftermath, a traumatized Jules abandons his drag career and persona until he unexpectedly spots the macho Preston at a gay-coded bathhouse, Preston’s disdainful rebuffs of other men’s attention belied by his presence in the obvious hookup spot.

And so Jules follows Preston and, anxiously realizing that his tormentor doesn’t recognize him out of drag, allows himself to be brusquely picked up for sex. Thus begins a relentlessly tense and rewardingly puzzling relationship, as homophobic hood Preston gradually softens and empowered Jules plots to capture one of their sexual trysts and post it on the internet.


“Femme” is an erotic thriller in the old, 1990s sense on the one hand, where Jules, caught up in a web of transgressive sexual experience, finds himself entangled. The desperately closeted Preston, meanwhile, dodges the suspicious glances of his gaggle of similarly thuggish pals as he, growing ever fonder of Jules’ company, instructs his secret lover how to dress “like a man” so they can hang out in public, with all the furtive hookups and near-misses that entails.

Both actors are deeply committed and uniformly terrific. (Stewart-Jarrett is best known for the National Theater revival of “Angels in America” while MacKay made an impression in “1917.”) As both very different men confront their changing feelings, they start to merge, the macho Preston sloughing off layers of his ugly internalized homophobia while Jules adopts a different sort of drag in Preston’s baggy street tough hoodies, feeling his power as he realizes his intended victim is vulnerable.

George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Preston and Jules in “Femme.” Courtesy of Signature Films

The message: “Femme,” expanded from a short film by co-directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman, starts out with the sort of anti-LGBTQ+ violence that’s always been one wrong glance away for that community – and which has only become more dangerous now that bigots have seized upon any outward sign of drag or trans identity as reason to harass and attack. (To insert my own messaging, as anti-LGBTQ+ hate becomes official policy in America, gay and trans kids are four times more likely to experience hate crimes in schools when their state passes anti-LGBTQ+ laws.)

“Femme,” however, toys with our expectations. Certainly, Preston and his goons’ initial attack on Jules (set off once Jules retorts that he’d seen Preston eyeing him outside the drag club earlier) is a queasily familiar inciting incident. And Jules’ plot to out Preston as a stereotypically self-hating closet case carries a straightforward rooting interest for sympathetic audiences – at least at first.

As Jules and Preston’s duplicitous bond grows more intertwined, though, our sympathies begin to shift in ways the filmmakers intend to be uncomfortable. We want to see Jules humiliate the person who hurt him, even as we view Preston’s halting steps toward humanity with grudging sympathy. Things can’t end well for this pair – and they don’t – but “Femme” takes our initial sympathies and tumbles them until single-minded surety isn’t possible.

The impact: “Femme” rides its two excellent central performances over some bumpy storytelling. While Jules is our entry point, the filmmakers increasingly center Preston’s redemption arc in a way that unbalances things (and prioritizes the moral quandary of a white bigot over his Black victim). But “Femme’s” undeniably intense set-pieces (and frank eroticism) make for riveting viewing, and its deliberately ambiguous conclusion subverts initial expectations in the way that more pat “message” movies aren’t bold enough to do. If there’s a message in Jules and Preston’s story, it’s tangled up in attitudes toward sexuality that seemingly preclude meaningful connection in a world where repressed male violence lurks in every encounter.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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