Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu in God’s Own Country (Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Johnny Saxby is having a tough time. He lives with his grandmother and father, who has suffered a stroke that has left him unable to work. To keep the family farm from going under, the folks depend on Johnny to run everything virtually by himself. That’s a hard burden on a young man who otherwise would be off at university or living in a large city where he could go exploring and come into his own, especially since Johnny is gay.

The first feature film by writer-director Francis Lee doesn’t go down the route you would expect it to, though. This is not a film centered on homophobia. This is a stuck-in-a-small-town movie (in northern England, actually). While Johnny (Josh O’Connor) may be gay, his problems aren’t easily summed up as having to live in the closet in the country or centered on his own strife with internalized homophobia. His peers seem to know about his sexual preference, and he gets laid whenever he wants. Johnny just resents the cards he’s been dealt and drinks every night because of it. As a result, he wakes up late for his chores and spends his mornings puking his guts out.

After a calf is delivered with birth defects and has to be put down, his father, Martin, blames Johnny’s indifferent attitude and hires a new farmhand. Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a soft-spoken Romanian immigrant roaming around Britain looking for a better life. The family puts him up in the camper out front, and Johnny is immediately resistant to him, taking to calling him “gypsy,” though Gheorghe politely and firmly asks him not to.

Johnny and George are tasked with taking a herd of sheep up into the hills for the lambing season (when the pregnant sheep will give birth). There they are to remain for a week living off Cup Noodles and sleeping side by side in a tiny stone shelter. Although both have worked on farms their whole lives, Johnny is rough and uncaring towards the livestock, whereas Gheorghe has a magic touch with animals. When delivering a stillborn, Johnny would rather call it a loss, while Gheorghe gets in there and gives the lamb mouth-to-placental-fluid-covered-mouth until it bounces to life.

It doesn’t take long before Johnny makes an advance toward Gheorghe, and they wordlessly start to the mud, tearing each other’s clothes off. But Johnny doesn’t like to kiss. As seen in an earlier sex scene with another man in a livestock trailer, he demonstrates an almost mechanical approach to intercourse, and so he has to be guided by Gheorghe into the sensuality of sex. Their second love scene is the film’s pivotal moment when Gheorghe subverts Johnny’s attempts to dominate. The scene is well crafted by the director, cameraman, and well executed by the actors, and it’s perhaps one of the best gay “awakening” sex scenes that’s ever been filmed.

When they return home, Johnny is all about wanting to do it more, all the time. Whenever Grandma Deidra and Martin are out of the way, he wants to hump again. It’s sweet, but is Johnny ever going to come to point he will tell his family about the budding relationship? Before long, Martin suffers another stroke, and the boys are left home alone again while Deirdre stays at her son’s hospital bedside. Whenever not tending to their chores, the boys play house together, eat their meals together, take baths together, spoon and canoodle whenever they like.

Both leads are superb. O’Connor’s experience in supporting roles (Peaky Blinders, The Durrells in Corfu) has paid off, and he is on his way to beefier roles sooner rather than later. This is Secareanu’s feature film debut. His Gheorghe is tender, levelheaded, but tough when he wants to be. Both are shockingly attractive, which makes for pleasant eye candy, and the actors give heartfelt performances that makes this film a meaningful love story.

Rounding out the small cast are Gemma Jones as Johnny’s grandmother, Deirdre, and Ian Hart as Martin, the patriarch. Both are seasoned actors with eclectic character acting resumes. (Jones played “Mum” in all the Bridget Jones movies. Hart is perhaps most recognizable as Professor Quirrell from the first Harry Potter). Here they both play understated roles, lending even more authenticity to the production.

Some should be forewarned: the filmmakers chose to film the actors performing real-life birthing procedures on the animals. Many scenes may be hard for viewers who are not used to that sort of thing. But this is what farm work entails, and Lee seems determined to show how magical it is. Working with animals does have a way of bringing people not just closer to nature but closer to each other, whether they end up in bed together or not.

This will no doubt be compared to a film from last year, Being 17 from France. But while both are coming-of-age films in pastoral settings, God’s Own Country is actually about rural life coming into its own in the modern age. What’s notable is that this movie isn’t preoccupied with homophobia or the paranoia of being found out. In fact, the film goes to lengths to illustrate this is not an oppressive, backwards community. It’s colloquial and slow paced, but not completely behind the times.

One of the film’s themes seems to be that the assumption that country folk are unaccepting of other’s lifestyles is unfounded, especially when, in the wake of factory-farms overtaking small family farms, country folk are more willing than ever to take in anyone willing to do the hard work and stick it to the corporations. Whether that is true or not, Francis Lee’s film at least paints a hopeful picture of what that world would look like.

Written and Directed by Francis Lee
Released by Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films
UK.104 min. Not rated
With Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, and Ian Hart