The 2021 BFI Flare festival opened with Jump, Darling, the feature debut of writer/director Philip J. Connell. On the surface it’s an overdone tale of a young man escaping the big city to live with his ailing grandmother, instead it rejects the narrative of a film about two generations coming together to clash over perspective into an examination on mental health, loneliness and discovering your passion for living.
After getting dumped by his boyfriend, aspiring actor and drag queen Russell (Thomas Duplessie) leaves Toronto. He ends up at his grandmother, Margaret’s (Cloris Leachman) house in Toronto where a stopover to pick up a car leads to a longer stay. She needs company and he needs a purpose in life.
Margaret appears frail and unable to care for herself, fighting her daughter (Linda Kash) to be put in a retirement home whileRussell is lost and depressed, failing as an actor and recently single after a split from his long-term boyfriend (Andrew Bushell). Whilst this family mostly disagree with each other, they have more in common than any of them would like to admit. Although all desperately lonely and struggling through mental health issues, the three generations still have a strength and tenacity, even if it means they butt heads.
This isn’t a witty fish out of water comedy, nor is it a whimsical tale of generational difference, and when you think you’ve put your finger on this film it throws a curveball. A history of family mental health issues and suicide emerges, deepening the impact of the film.
Duplessie, in his breakout performance, charms as a man who is both sullen and beaten by life, yet unapologetic and confident in his skin. Russell never has to come out to anyone, his identity as a gay man or as a drag queen accepted by those who matter. It’s a relief to watch a film with a gay lead, where none of the plot stems from or leads to a tragic coming out story.
The drag scenes feel like a real slice of Toronto nightlife. The dim lighting, the uninterested attendees and the off-beat musical selection makes it clear the filmmaker has been to a drag bar. In recent years, films have regurgitated the same idea of campy drag queens in Dusty Springfield wigs lip synching to I am What I Am (Stage Mother being the most recent and out of touch). Russell comes alive when he lip syncs, no matter how small the audience is.
In Jump, Darling drag is shown as a real art form that takes real talent to master. Shamed by his ex for his career, Russell does more than prove his worth as a drag performer. There is a powerful moment where they consider if drag is about gender, about sexuality or neither. Backstage scenes allow Jump, Darling to explore relevant topics of sexuality, gender and sex. The camera work perfectly captures the thrill of seeing a young drag queen prosper on stage.
To many, this film will belong to ninety four year-old Cloris Leachman, in one of her last roles. She lights up the screen as someone who is fragile and failing, yet still a sharp tongue. You just know how bright and feisty Margaret was in her youth as an ice skater. Although she looks like she could keel over, she won’t suffer fools gladly. She has kept up her rivalry with her frenemy Jeanne (Jayne Eastwood), throwing shade that Russell and his drag friends could only dream of.
It’s refreshing to see this mix of acidity and fragility in a performance. Her and Russell share more in common than either would want to acknowledge, both hiding their emotions behind a raised eyebrow and a sharp tongue. It becomes clear Margaret plays up her frailty because she doesn’t want to be alone, and she genuinely enjoys her grandson’s company.
It’s lovely to watch Cloris Leachman at work one last time. The icon, who died in January, who has been in everything from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Last Picture Show delivers an astonishing performance that side-steps many later-in-life platitudes. Her facial expressions tell as much story as the dialogue.
Jump, Darling does a good job of balancing the heart-warming with poignant. It shows that there is a way out of the deepest, darkest depression without it becoming a corny PSA. Whilst some of the subplots get a little lost in the ninety-minute runtime, Connell shows he is an exciting voice to watch in the industry.
Elevated by two standout performances, Jump, Darling feels comforting and familiar, whilst also filled with a refreshing amount of fresh takes on aging, sexuality, and mental health. Connell understands the stereotypes you expect from this type of film and does well to subvert them. The dialogue is witty, the characters three-dimensional and the topic timely.
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy