I’ll say one thing for Phill Connell’s indie film Jump, Darling straight away: it is frankly refreshing to see a gay-boy-in-a-small-town storyline that doesn’t take the To Wong Foo or Pricilla approach. That is to say, despite taking place in a small Canadian country town east of nowhere, the film’s flamboyantly queer protagonist does not stick out like a sore thumb in the sense of his sexuality or beliefs. Those films, while influential in their time and undeniable classics in queer cinema, have served their purpose, and it has been time for a new kind of story to be told in this space.
Instead, our main character sticks out for more believable, less trodden-on reasons than your typical Hollywood story about a drag queen. Jump, Darling does a very good job at crafting believable personalities, with a knack for non-verbal exposition that gives a clear map of the film’s few characters very quickly. But while world building and dialogue are among the production’s strengths, it ultimately fumbles the execution in enough places to stifle its overall effect.
Jump, Darling follows lead character Russell, a failed actor and part-time drag queen who leaves his generally comfortable life behind after his well-off boyfriend is unsupportive and not understanding of his drag career. Heading to the country, Russell arrives at his ailing grandmother Margaret’s home, and after performing as his alter ego Fishy Falters at the local college bar, decides to stick around both as a means of personal escape and to keep his grandma from the local nursing home she so desperately has been avoiding.
Fans of Canada’s Drag Race will no-doubt instantly recognize drag performer Tynomi Banks in one of the film’s introductory scenes, in which she performs while Russell blacks out drinking and walks out unannounced on his nightly gig. Those familiar with Drag Race will also be familiar with a topic often discussed during the show’s more earnest moments: drag queens’ often unhealthy relationships with alcohol, an issue we see present in Russell from the outset.
Russell’s rocky acquaintance with booze is one of many small details of his character we see unfold through the film. Despite largely stiff acting from newcomer Thomas Duplessie – which at times works as camp deadpan but more often reads flat – what he does accomplish very elegantly is crafting a character so immediately unlikable in such a way that makes you yearn for his Act II character arc before he’s even had a handful of lines.
But that second act doesn’t come for Russell in the way you might expect. All in all, Russel begins the movie a prick and ends the movie as a prick, if somewhat more understood. That is not to say there is no character arc to watch unfold. Instead of grand moments of Russell unsubtly changing into a “better person,” as one might assume from the outset, we are treated to moments that delve into why Russell might be the way he is. We are introduced to his overbearing mother, we learn of his alcoholic father who took his own life, and slowly we realize that the film is not about him changing as a person, but understanding the person he has always been: a somewhat obnoxious, sometimes amoral individual with a lust for autonomy in his life that he never felt he had, as well as a soft spot for his grandmother, who he was never quite there for. It helps add a hint of desperately-needed sympathy to his character.
Which is why it was Margaret, played impeccably by the dearly departed Cloris Leachman, that kept the film alive. In her final theatrical role, Leachman is nothing short of impeccable, so much so that she captivated my full attention when onscreen in a way that the rest of the film struggled to do. Frankly, the sequences that took me out of the story were largely those involving Russell’s relationship with drag, when what I really wanted to delve deeper into was his relationship with his grandmother. For every intriguing, often quiet moment between Russell and Margaret, showing his slow, slow, slow growth of character, we take a step back to a less interesting scene of Russell at the bar. This rhythm is likely intentional, though that doesn’t score points when it makes the film slightly frustrating to watch due to its stop and start nature. Admittedly this is a high subjective gripe, but one that is no less worth noting.
Though incredibly dark in tone and subject matter, the film thankfully has some subtle moment of camp that any queer story needs. Russell looting a literal piggy bank for cab money, his grandmother’s sarcastic interaction with a bridge frenemy at a convenience store, his mother’s absurd fixation on astrology as a means of explaining his actions; small moments, like a scene in which Russell performs alone in a Sia wig to Robyn’s “Indestructible” in a gay bar after hours, the queer version of the warehouse scene in Footloose if you will. These act as a nice reprieve from an otherwise brooding 90 minutes.
And while the film does bring a fresh spin on its setup, it is not above a few suspect depictions of drag culture, that despite clearly good intentions, sometimes cross over the line of respect for the art form. A late scene in which an older drag queen speaks with Russell in a dressing room and laments her long years performing after trying to make it bigger breaks the line of realism and enters the realm of disrespect. The elders queens on the scene should not be portrayed as washed up has-beens filled with regret, as in real life they are wise, seasoned professionals who adore what they do. It’s points in the narrative like this, as well as Russel’s decidedly un-woke drag name “Fishy Falters” that cloud the film’s messaging about the validity of drag as a career (though the latter example does a good job at cluing us into Russell’s immaturity).
Despite acting troubles (save Leachman, for which this is a magnificent swan song). Jump, Darling is a well-paced story with well-defined characters that have clear arcs, if a little enamored with too many sub plots for its lead. That’s why it’s a shame it does not quite stick the landing with it’s final scenes. Spoiler territory ahead.
When Russell decides to leave his grandmother’s home, she asks him to procure strong medication for her with which she intends to commit suicide. It is a heartbreaking moment, and perhaps the best-acted one from both Leachman and Duplessie. Clearly distraught by her request, Russell finally leaves for the bar he initially bailed on, where he manages to get back his weekly gig. In the film’s final scene, he performs in ice skates and an ice dancer costume identical to that from Margaret’s youth, intending to honor her and the time they spent together. The scene is intercut with Russell delivering the requested drugs to Margaret’s door, and her taking them in an attempt to overdose. As Russell begins his number, we see Margaret lie down to take her final breath, wearing the very ice skates from her youth.
As poignant a scene as the film goes for in its final minutes, it is truly hard to see the full circle moment when the main character essentially is an accomplice in assisted suicide. That is why I hesitate greatly to refer to Russell as a “protagonist,” despite him clearly being framed as such. Perhaps it is making the statement that Russell boldly decided to let his grandma have the final say on her life, the agency she so craved. Or maybe it is a statement that in some ways he hasn’t changed. Personally, neither conclusion is all that satisfying, and it leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth for a generally watchable but at many times uncomfortable film to end with such a 180.