Why am I crying at this movie? Like literally from the opening moments of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, I was sobbing. This is supposed to be a comedy, or a dramedy, at least: light, funny, diverting. So why was I bawling?
It’s because we don’t see “older” women — Emma Thompson (Last Christmas, How to Build a Girl) is 63; is that old? — onscreen quite like this. As vulnerable. As searching. As confused. As sexual. As people. As, really, anything at all beyond a saintly devoted mother and/or wife and/or support mechanism for other people, usually a male protagonist. Existing purely in the shadow of others.
Fuuuuuuck that shit.
But here is Thompson’s Nancy, a retired schoolteacher, a widow, checking into a lux(ish) London hotel room as Leo Grande opens. Tiny details in Sophie Hyde’s (52 Tuesdays) direction and Katy Brand’s script are *chef’s kiss* perfection: Nancy changes out of the flats she arrived in for (supposedly) sexier heels. Because that’s a thing that real women do, to navigate the gap between how we actually want to live and how the world expects us to be. Performative sexiness is often not very comfortable. But we’re not supposed to acknowledge that.
And then there’s a knock on the door, and she opens it, and it’s Daryl McCormack’s Leo Grande. He asks permission to enter. He asks, “May I kiss you on the cheek?” And I. Am. Sobbing. To be treated with such kindness, such consideration? But not in any way that is condescending? To be seen? Oh my god. She is stunned by it, as I was. And I knew this already, but to see it here: Women have such a fucking low bar for men, and even so, men so rarely manage to get over it. When they do? Wow.
Of course, Leo is a paid professional. He is a sex worker Nancy has hired to explore her sexuality, which hasn’t gotten much of a workout her entire life. She has never had an orgasm, she tells Leo. And so we see that this movie may climax — heh — in Nancy’s first climax. Or will it?
I will tell you — no spoilers — that how this particular plot point resolves itself is another bit of *chef’s kiss* perfection.
I love this movie so much. I love it for its honesty, its humanity, its utter uselessness for shame or embarrassment over a basic human need, the female experience of which is almost universally ignored onscreen. I love how it upends stereotypes. I love how it challenged my own perceptions of sex work.
Because, you see… I am awaiting the dudebros with what they think is their gotchas, the ones who will swoop in and say: “But what if the sex worker was a young woman and it was an old man who just wanted a lovely lady to be nice to him? Your crusty feminazi ass would hate it.”
It’s true, I might! I mean, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that there’s a decent film to be found in that trite and tired dynamic. But old man paired up with a beautiful woman 20, 30, 40 years younger than him is completely clichéd onscreen in the way the opposite is not. We don’t need to see more of the former, and we definitely need to see more of the latter. And “old man pays young woman for sex, when she doesn’t have a lot of other good opportunities to make a reasonable living” is probably not the best way to progressively explore the notion that, you know what, maybe it should be safe and legal and ordinary to pay for sex like you would any other personal service, like getting your hair cut or working out with a personal trainer.
Cuz, you see, flipping the genders of the more typical dynamic between sex worker and client — not only as seen onscreen, but also as it exists in the real world — removes at least some of the exploitative nature of these sorts of stories. Because even if you take away the overtly coercive aspects of this work (such as trafficking), it remains an issue that sex work, which is overwhelming done by women for men, is a really good way for women to make decent money. I’ve often wondered how many women sex workers would do the job if there were plenty of other ways to make similar amounts of money, especially if you lack the sorts of credentials that the legit world demands. (I’m sure that wouldn’t apply to all those women; I know many sex workers say they do the work because, among other positive reasons, they simply really really like sex. Like, I guess, a lot more than the rest of us.) Absent other good options for women, there’s almost no way to tease these things apart.
Here, though, Nancy and Leo have some frank conversations about his job, and one of the things he admits is that his mom doesn’t know what he does for work: his mom thinks Leo works on an oil rig. And you know what? Working on an oil rig is a good way for a man to make good money! But it’s nasty and dirty and lonely, and compared to that, sex work could look pretty appealing indeed… if you can pull it off, if you’re conventionally handsome (Leo totally is!) and can at least play-act the charm. (The nasty dirty legit jobs that women typically do, like changing babies’ and old peoples’ diapers and cleaning toilets, don’t pay anywhere near what working on an oil rig does.) Leo has options if all he’s worried about is making good money. It makes his choice of work seem less desperate, more an actual choice.
Anyway, Leo’s perspective on the work offers more food for thought than we might expect from a story like this.
Because this is more fantasy than usual with the gender flip, it leaves room for, you know, fantasy: “What is your fantasy?” Leo asks Nancy, and she tells him, and it’s so mundane that it’s poignant. That Nancy’s fantasies, the things she dreams about doing because she’s never been able to, are so basic might be the most bittersweet thing about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. This is an absolutely lovely film about how absolutely ignored half the human race has been in our pop culture, and too often in our real lives.