'Jump, Darling' Film Review | BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2021
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Content Warning: The following review contains discussion of mental health, suicide and euthanasia.
Cloris Leachman was, for the unitiated, one of Hollywood's bona fide female legends. Her career as an actress and comedienne saw her shine in various shows and films including Malcom in the Middle, Phineas and Ferb, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, of course, Cher. She never did stop working, and her death in January of 2021 saw her leave a trail of unreleased productions in her wake. One such film is Jump, Darling, this year's opening flick at the annual BFI Flare queer film festival, which acts as a solid and competent swansong for the star.
The film revolves around Leachman's 'Margeret' and her floundering grandson 'Russell', who turns up at his grandma's doorstep after a break-up with his boyfriend. It's a neat set-up for a film which takes multiple, surprisingly heavy turns, and both lead characters find themselves a substantial amount of narrative meat to chew on. The film's dual narrative can feel clunky at times, and it's true that Margaret's battle with mental health is far more compelling and sympathetic than Russell's, but as a whole Jump, Darling offers audiences a compelling, multi-generational exploration of what it's like to be an outsider in a not-so-nuclear family.
The film is also, though, a little slow and uneven. Now I don't mind a leisurely narrative, don't get me wrong - some of my favourites at this year's Flare are as gentle as gentle can be - but the problem with Jump, Darling is that it requires its audience to stick with it's lead characters through a variety of (fairly grim) circumstances without offering much in the way of levity - or rather, the levity it offers isn't entirely effective.
Russell, you see, is a struggling drag queen, and at various points throughout the film we're invited to immerse ourselves in the world of 'Fishy Falters' (his drag alter-ego) and enjoy the occasional dance and lip-sync. None of these sequences were bad, but they weren't quite dynamic or enthralling enough to effectively distract me from the heaviness of the scenes which come before them. It also doesn't help that Russell's character is pretty unlikable; he consistently makes unsympathetic decisions throughout the film which widen the gap between the viewer and their potential for connection and empathy. And if there's anything harder than being asked to sympathize with somebody you don't like, it's being asked to be entertained by them.
To be clear, Thomas Duplessie (who plays Russell) offers a genuinely strong performance in the role. He's a solid actor who undeniably holds is own against a legend as talented as Leachman. It's just a shame that the script and direction of the film didn't do enough to make us like him before he starts neglecting his health and stealing from his gran.
I also found that the film paints a somewhat scathing picture of the drag scene. I can't speak on how much personal experience that director Phil Connell (who also co-wrote the script alongside Genevieve Scott) has with the world of drag, but the film itself seems to regard it as a hedonistic, sloppy and awkward artform to pursue. The film seems to suggest that substance abuse goes hand-in-hand with commitment to the scene, and seems to repeatedly suggest that Russell, while in drag, is both unattractive and incompatible with ideals of monogamous, romantic relationships.
I can't quite tell if Jump, Darling is brave to tackle these 'issues' - if it's boldly critiquing a queer scene that finds its truth both sanitized and over-glamorized by the various branches of the successful Drag Race franchise. Alternatively, and worryingly, Jump, Darling would seem to serve as a homonormative attack on the importance of drag as a medium for queer expression, and I'm not sure that's a stance I can convince myself to rally behind...
The film closes on a very bold discussion of suicide and euthanasia, and once again finds itself seated in a position I'm not sure I can support. I can't delve into this on account of spoilers, but the film's final moments feel cold and unnecessarily shocking, and fail to encourage alternative solutions to those who feel tempted to take their own lives. When you decide to release a film that tackles issues like suicide and euthanasia, I personally believe you have a duty to handle them with care and nuance and tact - I am also aware that many would disagree with me, though, for the very purpose of art is to trigger such discussion. Regardless, I would not recommend this film to someone battling depression or suicidal impulses, and considering we have statistical evidence that depression disproportionately affects those in the LGBTQ+ community, I think it would have been wiser for Jump, Darling (as a queer film) to approach these themes with just a little bit more refinement, compassion and hope.
Ultimately, Jump, Darling is a competent swan-song for Cloris Leachman and poses some truly interesting questions about family responsibilities and mental health. In its brightest moments I found myself engaged in the film's central grandmother-grandson relationship. In its darkest, I found myself wholly detached. Its bold ending may been designed to leave a lasting impression, and to its credit it certainly does, but (for me) the choices made backfire and left me questioning the film's artistic intention. Regardless, it stands as a promising debut-feature from Phil Connell, who I'm interested to watch as he progresses as a director.
Written by James Green