Jump, Darling, the feature debut of writer-director Philip J. Connell, receives its international premiere at the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. On the surface, the tale of a young gay man escaping the big city to live with his grandmother in the countryside, reeks of every fish-out-of-water story ever conceived. The beauty of this film, however lies in its sobering look at suicidal ideation, unforced performances, and the presence of one very special icon in what would be her final screen performance.
After getting dumped by his boyfriend, Russell (Thomas Duplessie), an aspiring actor and fledgling drag queen named Fishy Falters, leaves his Toronto bubble to enroll in an acting class elsewhere. A stopover at his grandmother’s rural house to pick up a car she has gifted him ends up waylaying his plans. Frail and unable to care for herself, Margaret (Cloris Leachman), faces being put into a retirement community against her will by her daughter (deftly portrayed by Linda Kash). Russell, a little lost and depressive himself, opts to stay and help keep Margaret at home.
When a family history of suicide emerges, the film’s premise of mutual healing overcoming overwhelming loneliness and sadness differentiates it from past wacky comedies that it so easily could have become. This starts with Duplessie’s lead performance of a man who may seem eternally sullen, but who also has that unapologetic confidence, especially when he gets in drag and takes over at the local small town gay bar. With some charmingly offbeat music selections, these sequences sidestep the usual cliché of your main character lip -yncing to yet another Mariah Carey number. Duplessie makes these scenes come alive, convincing me he could win every Lip Sync For Your Life moment on Canada’s Drag Race. Speaking of which, season one’s Tynomi Banks shows up for a couple of scenes to sprinkle the right amount of credibility on the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Margaret, who looks like she could keel over at any moment, has a head full of haunted memories and enough energy to suffer no fools. Her encounters with the town frenemy, Jeanne (a note perfect Jayne Eastwood), shows us Margaret can still throw shade better than any of the town’s queens. Her relationship with Russell provides us with the beating heart of the film. While both tend to hide their feelings from the rest of the world, together they cut to the chase with a bold directness. Russell may steal money from her, but she knows his heart and has other priorities than what she has in her bank account. It’s also rare to see an elderly person portrayed with a mixture of fragility, acidity, and with details such as her former life as an ice skater.
Let’s stop here for a second and savor this for a moment. It’s impossible to watch this film and not think about the fact that Cloris Leachman was 94-years-old when she shot this film. N-I-N-E-T-Y F-O-U-R! At that age, most people are either long since passed or snoozing all day in front of their televisions. Cloris, however, was still at the top of the Call Sheet, showing up for work, and delivering powerful performances. Since this is a Canadian film, this American actor has risen to International Treasure status. It seemed astounding enough to watch her compete on Dancing With The Stars at the age of 82, or even win the Oscar at the age of 44 (considered ripe and old by Hollywood standards) for The Last Picture Show, but her work here truly astounds. Yes, it is very possible the director shot her in isolated closeups a lot in order to feed her lines, but you can’t easily manufacture her presence, her force, and her power. You see every wrinkle, every aging bone, and every slow, careful movement. I savored it when I originally saw it as part of Inside Out, knowing it could easily be one of her last picture shows.
Ultimately, Jump, Darling is about finding yourself by thinking about others. With depression, sadly, too many people drown in their own negative self-talk, and this film shows a beautiful pathway out of that paralyzing condition. It also makes a strong case for controlling your own destiny in a way I found quite profound. It’s not perfect and doesn’t really develop things as deeply as they could have gone, but it has real heart. The final sequence, which intercuts our two main characters in very different locations, unites them with a simple but beautiful visual motif, earned the lump I felt in my throat. Excuse the tired ice skating term, but it literally sticks the landing.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Jump, Darling receives its international premiere at the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival from March 17-28th 2021. For more information, and to purchase tickets and passes visit bfi.org.uk/flare.