‘Femme’ Review: An Empathic Look at a Tragically Complex Situation

Kevin Taft reviews Femme, the tremendous feature film debut from directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman.
User Rating: 9.5

In their new film Femme, writer/directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping have crafted something startlingly complex and affecting. What seems at first to be a straight revenge thriller becomes something entirely different – yet not without a consistent amount of tension running like an oncoming freight train throughout.

Femme stars Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Candyman) as Jules, a moderately femme twenty-something who moonlights as drag queen Aphrodite at a local gay club. One night, during a break between sets, he is smoking outside the club (still in drag) when he notices a handsome tatted-up blonde looking at him and then walking away.

Later that night, he goes out for a break again and notices he’s out of smokes. Still dressed in his drag persona, he nervously crosses the street and into a convenience store, where that same guy and his thuggish friends enter shortly after him. That guy is Preston (George MacKay, 1917), and he swiftly notices him and makes a derogatory comment that starts a chain of events that leaves Jules beaten and naked on the sidewalk.

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Weeks later, Jules is still scarred from the incident and won’t leave the apartment he shares with best friends Toby (John McCrea) and Alicia (Asha Reid). After being berated by his roommates for not being social, he decides to go to a bathhouse. There, he shockingly spots Preston. But being out of drag, Preston doesn’t recognize Jules, and they eventually go home together.

Thus begins a curiously out-of-balance relationship between the two. This mostly involves Preston puffing himself up by spending money on big dinners and then having his way with Jules afterward. Meanwhile, Jules is using their dalliances to eventually out Preston publicly. He plans to do this by filming them in a sexual act and posting it on an amateur porn channel.

But things aren’t that simple. While Jules is not really falling in love with Preston, he does start to understand him. When he attempts to record one of their sex acts, Preston notices and becomes enraged. Instead of feeling upset that he didn’t get the footage he wanted, Jules ends up feeling bad that he did it in the first place.

On the one hand, Preston assaulted him, affecting him both physically and emotionally. But in that, Jules sees Preston’s pain and why he did what he did. It’s that empathy that confuses Jules and puts everything on a tilt he can’t right.

Meanwhile, Preston slowly gets to know Jules and slowly begins to break down his own walls. It’s to the directors’ credit that our allegiances shift throughout the film as we, too, come to understand the various perspectives and life situations that engendered this entire situation.

Freeman and Ping’s script doesn’t try to take a side; it is more concerned with showing multiple viewpoints and the complexity of the people involved. This story could have easily been a pulpy, crowd-pleasing revenge thriller with simple politics and motivations at its core. However, people are more intricate, and this film wisely explores that.

Our two leads are exemplary. MacKay, who commanded the screen in 1917, plays so against type here – and so well – that it is unnerving. His nervous, twitchy, violent energy creates an almost unbearable tension whenever he’s onscreen. You never know when he will pop off or what else he might be capable of doing. That’s also why, when his character starts to have feelings for Jules, the change in his character is so striking. You can see the little boy who just wants to be himself instead of the hulking thug he wears as a costume. Or is it a costume?

Similarly, Stewart-Jarrett offers us a confident, assured man comfortable in his skin, but when met with a horrific act, he finds himself shrinking back into a frightened child. Almost a blank slate. He’s a shadow of what he was, and it’s devastating to watch. But it is also fascinating in that for a lot of the film, Jules is silent. Afraid to say or do the wrong thing, Stewart-Jarrett’s body language and expressive face are all we need to know exactly what is happening with him.

But he, too, loosens up and morphs as he becomes more comfortable around Preston and, eventually, his friends. You can see where this whole affair could lead to a happy ending. But this film is a bit more realistic than that. Yet it’s not without its heartfelt moments, even amidst the heartbreak.

Femme is a riveting look at a masculinity that masks and confines a more complicated reality. It also sensitively shows us just how different the world could be if those who are different weren’t targeted as something to be feared. It’s a tremendous feature film debut that shouldn’t be missed.

Femme opens in theaters on March 22, 2024, in New York,
March 29 in Los Angeles and Chicago,
and expands nationwide on April 5.

Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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