"Femme" Source: Utopia Pictures

Review: Gay Drama 'Femme' Brutal and Tender by Turns

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.

When Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) meets Preston (George MacKay), there's an undeniable attraction. The problem is that Preston is a tough guy and low-level criminal whose association with other lowlifes makes being gay unacceptable, with the result being that he does deny the attraction – along with the fact that he's queer.

At least, in public. In private – or in the confines of a gay sauna – things are vastly different.

It's into the gulf between core truth and performative identities that the writing and directing team of Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping delve in "Femme," a revenge drama that starts with a gay bashing but then heads into emotionally tumultuous terrain where love, rage, hate, and fear collide.

Jules is a star of London's drag scene. Between sets at the club one evening he steps out for a smoke and catches the eye of Preston, who's loitering under a street lamp. A frisson passes between them, but Preston simply walks away.

Things turn out much differently when Jules encounters Preston again, this time with his posse of rude boys, at a local shop. Still dressed in his drag finery, Jules instantly becomes the target of the gang's homophobic harassment; when he pushes back, the gang pummel him and leave him naked in the street. The scars linger, with Jules withdrawing into himself, to the alarm of his friends.

Months later, when he ventures to a gay sauna, Jules spots Preston, clad in only a towel, coming on to another man. When he's rejected, Preston angrily storms off, but Jules – on impulse, and without a real plan – follows him. When Preston doesn't recognize him (and when their meeting leads to more), Jules does some research on how to make revenge porn, and hatches a plan to out and humiliate Preston.

But there's a major snag: Jules starts to develop feelings for Preston. Empathy for Preston's rough upbringing deepens into genuine affection, maybe even love, and as he starts to see Preston gradually soften and open up Jules glimpses the wounded soul underneath the explosive temper and armor of hostility. Like Jules, Preston has a costume and a persona. In his case, however, the act is an all-day, every-day performance, and instead of gowns and makeup, he covers himself in an impressive array of tattoos and a frightening, even psychopathic, tendency toward violence.

Still, Jules' own wounds – inflicted by Preston – remain fresh, and Jules struggles with his hurt and fury even as the emotional bond between himself and Preston grows.

Freeman and Ng bring unexpected texture and poignancy to the film, which could have remained a facile treatment of the obvious dramatic possibilities. MacKay and Stewart-Jarret make the most of the material, delving deep into layers of psychological and sexual conflict and finding the human hearts of both Jules and Preston.

In a world where you have to be tough – and sometimes vicious – in order to survive, will these two find their way toward something better? You want them to, but the film resists easy answers, sinking its hooks into you and not letting go even after the final frame.

"Femme" opens in theaters March 22.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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