Over the past few years, thanks to “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”, popular internet series like “UNHhhh”, various touring shows, and an ever-emerging flow of stylishly loveable queens, drag has filtered its way into the mainstream, gaining popularity at an unprecedented level. With this growing respect and adoration, we are starting to understand the medium of drag not only as entertainment but as an art form and a means of self-expression. This exact craft and the meaning it holds for its performers lie at the heart of Phil Connell’s debut feature, Jump, Darling.
Dumped by his boyfriend and intimidated out of his chance to perform at one of Toronto’s prestigious drag nightclubs, Russell (Thomas Duplessie) runs away from the City, seeking refuge with his wise-talking, tell it like it is grandmother (Cloris Leachman): ‘You look like you’ve been hit with a shovel’ she tells him after expressing shock at his sudden appearance at her home. At first, it seems that Russell, a struggling actor with little to his name, is only looking for a quick cash grab from his forgetful Grannie. However, once he recognises just how badly his Grandmother is failing to take proper care of herself – the fridge is empty, her hair is burnt, her memory is fogging – Russell decides to ditch his half-baked plans and stay on to look out for her.
Two parallel tales of cross-generational discovery and self-reflection run simultaneously as the two protagonists learn to live with one another. There’s Margaret, coming to the end of her life, who would rather take fate into her own hands than live in the ‘hell hole’ of a retirement home her daughter (Linda Kash) picks out for her. Then Russell, at the start of his life, who needs space to reflect on himself and his goals. There’s talk of Russell’s dreams of becoming an actor, but it seems that Russell’s true passion and calling is drag. He perks up the tired scene at a local gay bar where he performs as his drag alter-ego Fishy Falters, seizing the chance to hone his craft and develop his skills as an entertainer. However, at this time in his life, Russell needs his grandmother just as much as she needs him. Margaret inspires, listens and provides hard truths and life lessons, providing him with the courage to live as his authentic self.
Jump, Darling is a sweet, heart-warming tale, which unspools at its own soft pace. Although undoubtedly a little familiar and predictable, Connell filters in just enough fine detail and character depth to make this a compelling and unique tale. His moving script sucks us into the unusually catty yet loving relationship at the film’s centre. The film also handles its subject matter delicately, speaking to experiences of trauma, grief, and of feeling lost with an authentic touch. However, it balances the sorrow with welcoming humour and truly awe-inspiring lip sync numbers. A secondary tale in which we explore Russell’s blossoming relationship with the closeted bartender at his workplace feels a smidge too underdeveloped and distracted. Yet, the central plot of cross-generational family dynamics saves the film from wandering too far afield.
Jump, Darling is the final on-screen turn for Cloris Leachman, who died in her sleep earlier this year, aged 94. Her career spanned across seven decades, seeing her win eight Prime Time Emmy Awards and star in countless, much-loved favourites, from The Last Picture Show to Young Frankenstein. Her work here is just another success on a long-list of surefooted triumphs, and she couldn’t have wanted for a better screen partner to share the stage in her final hurrah. Thomas Duplessie excels, holding his own against a seasoned professional such as Leachman with poise and style. The pair have wonderfully enticing chemistry, and it’s a joy to watch them butt-heads, joke and learn from one another as their narrative unravels.
Overall, Jump, Darling is a well-crafted, bittersweet and charming feature from Phil Connell. His writing is snappy and precise, never lingering too long or getting too far off track, and his direction is steady. Perhaps, given the immense variety of drag-based content on offer at the moment, the film won’t feel as impactful or memorable as intended. However, all tea, no shade, there’s certainly a lot to love tucked away in this darling little movie.
Dir: Phil Connell
Scr: Phil Connell, Genevieve Scott
Cast: Cloris Leachman, Thomas Duplessie, Linda Kash, Jayne Eastwood
DOP: Viktor Cahoj
Runtime: 90 minutes
Jump, Darling will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on March 17th 2021