Morbidly obese Dawn Davenport (Divine) runs away from home and is raped, has a baby and gets a job slinging burgers while at night she’s a go-go dancer and prostitute. As daughter Taffy (Mink Stole) grows up she is kept in line with the threat of a whipping with a car aerial. “It’s tough being a loving mother!” smirks Dawn.

Dawn then joins two chums and they become big-haired female muggers. All the while low-life Ida (Edith Massey) is giving life advice to her hairdresser nephew Gator (Michael Potter). She hopes he is queer because heterosexuality offers only: “a sick and boring life”. When Dawn heads round for a wash’n’set at the Lipstick salon (which specialises in hard luck cases) she admits: “I’m a thief and a shit-kicker.” Where else could we be but in John Waters’s pre-punk Baltimore, Charm City?

Dawn takes up with the straight Gator, there’s marriage, marital discord, an acid attack and teenage trauma from the adolescent Taffy who has the “face of a retarded brat,” according to her mom. “A child psychologist told me to beat [my daughter] mercilessly whenever she acted up.”

With primitive analogue movie equipment, a gonzo art school aesthetic, zero budget, a certain revelling in amateur theatrics and a pathological need to shock, John Waters’ early-period oeuvre might easily be written off but for his startling star Divine (aka Glenn Milstead). In today’s ultra-woke times drag has been likened to ‘blackface’, a way of ridiculing and demeaning women. But Divine’s persona goes beyond mere female impersonation. He appears in a succession of extreme outfits, hairdos and makeup. His cri de cœur seems to be: “accept me for what I am”. Talk about non-binary!

On one level Female Trouble is a dry run for the director’s more mainstream Hairspray, but its raw, no holds barred, pro-am quality is its real strength. It draws inspiration from Douglas Sirk’s glossy Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s as much as Russ Meyer’s rustic crudity. There are echoes of Fassbinder and Genet, the Warhol Factory and trashy TV soaps.

Remarkably, it doesn’t look too dated. Its shocks are still electric and it can still jolt with its humour. Belly laughs abound.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 13 Jul 2020