Short But Not So Sweet – Paapa Essiedu Takes The Lead In Award-winning Mini-Thriller, FEMME

“There’s always gonna be boys that will hurt ya,” Jordan’s dad opens Femme with this foreboding statement, igniting immediately a sense of imminent danger. Crime thrillers conventionally have been dominated by cisgender, heterosexual masculine narratives, but Femme writers and directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman centralise the queer, femme experience against a backdrop of criminality and homophobic belligerence. First premiered at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) where it received Best British Short, the film was also nominated for Best Short Film at the London Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Short at the SXSW Film Festival.

Femme is a crime thriller that details the unique yet precarious position of a queer, femme man living in a heteronormative and at times misogynistic world. Originally used in lesbian subcultures, where the terms ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ are used to acknowledge feminine and masculine identities, femme has become popularised for usage among gay and trans as well as non-binary people. Paapa Essiedu, known for his roles in I May Destroy You and a stunning turn as Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, stars as the protagonist Jordan, who wears his femme label proudly. He is tempted by Wes, a drug dealer he meets outside a queer nightclub after experiencing heartbreak, and invites Jordan to go with him for some innocuous “style tips.” Played by Harris Dickinson, Wes is masculine, straightforward yet alluring to Jordan, whose own vulnerability and feminine demeanour suggest the two match like a moth to a flame.

Paapa Essiedu in FEMME

Jordan leaves the protective realm of the nightclub and heads to the unfriendly environment Wes resides in, the mise-en-scene switches from dreamy visual to stark and bright. Images of blue play an intermittent role – denoting emotional intensity in key moments. Similarly with red, which blares through a desk lamp in Wes’s house to show the impending threat Jordan is facing. “We wanted to explore the idea of ‘heterophobia’ – the sense of unease, or even fear, that queer people often experience in aggressively heterosexual environments and scenarios,” Ping and Freeman say. “We love [the crime] genre and thought that a twist on the hyper-masculine late-night thriller would be an exciting way to tell our story; one that would allow us to ramp the premise up to its extreme.”

Harris Dickinson in FEMME

Essiedu gives a rich performance in his role, showing his capability at bringing nuance and subtext to a crime story where plot could have easily overshadowed the protagonist. Its quick accumulation of tension near the end of the film erupts in a burst of violence that leaves your heart pounding.

Ping and Freeman cite the American filmmaking duo the Safdie Brothers as a key inspiration for Femme, for their mastery in building and sutaining tension in films such as Good Time and Uncut Gems. “When people tell us that they hid their face behind their hands, or that they had to pause the film to take a breath, we know we’ve done our job well.“ The writing and directing duo demonstrate that there is ample space for queer perspectives to be featured in crime thrillers. Together with Essiedu’s performance, it tells us that the apprehension associated with the genre encapsulates exactly the anxious feelings that queer people experience by outwardly defying gender stereotypes.

Written by Kesh Wang

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