Despite contrivances, these Boots were made for watching

By Matt Zakosek

In the proud tradition of twee British comedies—like January’s Imagine Me and You—comes Kinky Boots, the story of Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), a reluctant businessman who must save his father’s shoe factory from financial ruin by making specialty heels for drag queens. It sounds like an impossibly cutesy premise for a movie, and it kind of is, but the likable cast and charming script save it (just barely) from TV-movie territory.

Charlie is engaged to Nicola (Jemima Rooper), a social climber who wants nothing more than to distance herself from a life of men’s footwear. Charlie wants this, too—or at least, he thinks he does—but when his father, Harold Price (Robert Pugh) dies, he feels obligated to return to the family trade. Before long, he finds himself wrapped up in the daily drama of the factory and its workers, including hard-working but sexist Don (Nick Frost) and friendly, intelligent Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts).

It’s Lauren who suggests that Charlie stop manufacturing the same tired men’s loafers and find a niche market. He finds one in Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a transgendered performer whom he rescues from a gang of hooligans in a dark alley. Lola, who also goes by Simon, is tired of wearing women’s heels in his act. They can’t possibly support a man in women’s clothing; they’re too flimsy.

The problem is that the film’s premise is pretty flimsy itself. Basically a reiteration of Britcoms dating back at least as far as The Full Monty (working-class underdogs regain their dignity in a vaguely naughty way), the film won’t be making any lasting impressions. It won’t receive a surprise Best Picture nomination like The Full Monty did in ’97, either; it’s not quite that caliber, though a few moments come close.

Where the film actually breaks new ground is in its depiction of the transgendered Lola. Lola’s sexuality is neither fodder for a plot twist (The Crying Game) nor treated as another “problem” in a series of soap-opera developments (Transamerica). Lola may camp it up in her lounge act, but her conversations with Charlie ring true. For once, we actually get to see a transgendered character as a multi-dimensional person, although I noticed that the film tiptoes carefully around the subject of Lola’s love life. It’s not that progressive.

As for Charlie’s love life…is it any surprise that he winds up with the more compassionate, understanding Lauren? One of the film’s strengths, though, is that it resists the urge to demonize Nicola. “I can’t change what I want,” she sobs, and just like Charlie, the audience gets the sinking realization that she’s right. This doesn’t make her a bad person. As Charlie, Joel Edgerton is both endearing and infuriating; he’s a lovable underdog, but not everyone is made to root for the underdog.

In the film’s best subplot, portly Don receives his comeuppance after directing homophobic (transphobic?) slurs to Lola. (He defiles a poster with the word “queer,” which plays as slightly less offensive than uttering it out loud.) Rather than dismissing Don as an ignorant buffoon, director Julian Jarrold allows his audience the rare pleasure of watching a stubborn man slowly change his mind. Don’s transformation from bigot to slightly more tolerant individual is subtle, convincing, and genuinely moving.

Don changes his mind about Charlie, too, but the circumstances surrounding this are incredibly contrived: an intercom allows a private conversation to be heard by the entire factory. It’s a standard plot device that still inspires groans whenever it’s trotted out. More disorienting is Jarrold’s overuse of close-ups for the first third of the film. Jarrold, a veteran of television, occasionally seems stuck in the small screen, and his camera evokes a beloved TV character: Arrested Development’s Lucille Austero, who suffered from vertigo.

Despite these flaws, Boots ranks right up there with saucy Britcoms like Saving Grace (little old lady grows marijuana to get out of debt) and Calendar Girls (older women pose nude to raise money for a local hospital). However, Boots is more wholesome than its title suggests, which may speak to Hollywood’s persistent homophobia. It’s rated PG-13 for “language” (that’s OK) and “thematic material involving sexuality.” Here’s a rule of thumb: The longer the reason given by the ratings board, the less credibility it deserves. Why should transgendered issues be classified as adults-only? As Lola says, “You are never more than 10 feet away from a drag queen.” Shielding children from gender issues does them a major disservice.

Every time a studio releases a new adaptation of The Miracle Worker, I have to convince my father that the lead actress isn’t really deaf and blind. (Yes, he actually believed that Hallie Eisenberg, the annoying girl from those Pepsi commercials, was handicapped.) Well, Ejiofor’s performance is so phenomenal that I assumed the producers went out and found a seasoned drag performer, like Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. Not the case. Ejiofor is an established actor who has worked with Spike Lee and Woody Allen. Needless to say, he’s a lot more convincing as a male-to-female transsexual than Cillian Murphy in the recent Breakfast on Pluto.

Kinky Boots may have some difficulty finding its audience, and that’s a shame. Recent queer fare has tended more toward frothy sex comedies (see Eating Out) than heartfelt character studies like Boots. But for audiences willing to risk a few plot contrivances and jarring camera movements, these Boots are made for watching.