It was an occasion for much laughter last week when the news leaked that ex-POTUS Trump and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich were reportedly drafting a GOP “policy agenda” to wrest federal government control back from those evil libs next year. The joke was that under Trump, the party had ceased to have any such thing—far from proposing to do anything, it ran campaigns solely on personality, jingoism, and finger-pointing. Particularly successful in the latter department has been making conservatives a-scared-a trans people, a demographic few of them have likely ever consciously encountered in real (as opposed to TV-watching) life.
The basic idea seems to be fostering terror that a minority horrifyingly vulnerable to bullying, violence, and suicide (40% of trans teens attempt it) is somehow going to miraculously turn into predatory monsters once allowed entrée to the bathroom or locker room of their gendered choice. “It’s about protecting the children!” is a cry that always works for Republicans—never mind how often what they’re really saying is “We’re straight men petrified some lady-man might look at our pecker while standing at the urinal.”
Two new documentaries arriving the week before Frameline provide a partial glimpse at the very wide range of trans issues and emerging visibility. Michael Barnett’s Changing the Game, which is now on streaming platform Hulu, scrutinizes the one related matter as bile-stirringly divisive as the prospect of transpersons using bathrooms: Their inclusion on school sports teams, and how gender identity is allowed (or sometimes forced) to factor into that equation. Barnett focuses on three high school athletes in different states where, for lack of any overarching national guidelines or public consensus, policies run a bewildering gamut.
In Texas, Mack Beggs is top-ranked among wrestlers on girls’ teams—though he only plays on one because the authorities refuse to let him compete against boys, hewing to a strict “gender of birth” rule. But his wins infuriate many who think “it’s cheating … [to] shoot up testosterone.” He often has to perform at meets amidst boos and thumbs-down from spectators. New Hampshire competitive skier Sarah Huckman is in a middling position. Her state decrees that a student needs to have completed gender-reassignment surgery to compete as that particular gender, though no one seems to object to her presence on the slopes. Conversely in Connecticut, track star Andraya Yearwood and any other student are “free to participate in sports based on their gender identity”—but that doesn’t prevent them from being attacked for doing so, as when she’s harangued on the field by one older female onlooker for making “a mockery of women’s sports and rights.”
Sarah aside, we don’t necessarily see how accepted these teens are by their classmate peers, but we do meet their supportive coaches and parents. The latter, in Sarah’s case, self-describe as “pretty conservative,” but they “don’t think being transgender is political. There are [instead] people who try to politicize it.” Mack’s grandparents, who raised him, still tend to mix up their pronouns, and grandma is a “hardcore Republican,” Southern Baptist and Dallas deputy sheriff to boot. Yet they, like Sarah’s folks and Andraya’s single mother, have come to a deep, understanding tolerance of complex gender issues simply by having a child who suffered from gender dysphoria. This underlines something crucial: That nearly any other bias, transphobia tends to evaporate whenever an individual actually gets to know “those people.”
This nuanced and engrossing documentary isn’t one-sidedly “pro”: It not only provides fleeting platform for nay-saying parents and observers, but also gives serious screentime to Chelsea, an equally talented and determined wrestler who might well be the Texas girls’ state champ…if not for Mack. Is it fair that she must compete against a boy? Will she lose out on a college scholarship as a result? (Notably, he doesn’t get offered one, either.) It’s easy to shrug off the mean taunts of Fox News commentators heard here, as they sneer at any transgender sports participation. But for Chelsea, the situation seems a personal injustice. At least there’s a happy ending for Mack: His post-high school athletic team endeavor is on the boys’ team. (And while he may not be state champ again, he still does just fine.)
All the protagonists in Changing the Game are very likable. That is not necessarily the case in James Kicklighter’s The Sound of Identity, a somewhat over-slick yet undercooked documentary about a 2019 Tulsa Opera production of Don Giovanni. The hook (to both film and staging) is that Mozart’s antihero is being played by a transgender performer, Sacramento-born, Germany-based Lucia Lucas. Beyond the dislocating factor of the singer’s rich baritone issuing from a long-haired, voluptuous female figure, the show emphasizes duplicitous horndog Don G.’s skill as a “master of disguise” to toy with gender fluidity and indict “toxic masculinity.”
That sounds interesting, but we scarcely get to glimpse the final production—nor even its rehearsals, or its public reception, so God knows if the modern-dress production actually worked. Instead, Identity expends screen time on a not-quite-yet star with a very healthy ego, who nonetheless isn’t terribly articulate, having forced conversations with Tulsa Opera artistic director Tobias Picker, promoting the under-selling show, playing video games, or talking about herself. The film dwells much on the taboo-breaching of Lucas’ casting, yet it’s unclear if anyone in the Tulsa or operatic communities has actually made any objection.
Failing to find a controversy it keeps hinting at, the documentary is padded out with boring backstage interviews and other material that occasionally touches on significant other issues (like Tulsa Opera and the art form’s shrinking audiences) without really exploring them. There’s fodder here for several short promotional videos. As a 90-minute feature, though, The Sound of Identity feels like a paddleboat moving in circles in a duck pond—exhausting the viewer as it goes nowhere. It’s currently on digital and VOD platforms from Shout! Studios.
Other notable new arrivals this week:
I came very late to Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson, not through her beloved Moomin children’s books but her lesser-known adult novels. Starting out with the enchanting Summer Book—a chronicle of a six-year-old girl’s last season with her aging grandmother that is perfect in its surface simplicity and bottomless depth—I wound up reading nearly everything else by her in a gulp, just a couple years ago.
Jansson died two decades ago, at age 86. This biographical film dramatizes the period between about 1944 to 1952, when she gradually transitioned from painting (the “serious” art a successful-sculptor father urged her toward) to the Moominworld books, comic strips, plays, and so forth that would make her known the world round, though for a long time she dismissed it as a frivolous “distraction.”
Even though that endearingly whimsical work is what most people know (and want to know) about her, Tove doesn’t expend much energy clarifying where its inspiration came from, or to what extent it had earned her some popularity early on. Instead, the script here chooses to focus primarily on the love life of Alma Poysti’s title figure. It finds somewhat conflicted outlets in involvement with two married separately people: Socialist parliamentarian-journalist Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) and theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen).
As painted here, the heterosexual affair is more of a deep friendship (at least on her end), while the lesbian one was all passion—a fire that, alas, Bandler apparently kindled with many others, spurning emotional or any other fidelity. (Eventually Jansson found a long-term female soulmate in fellow artist Tuulikki Pietila, whose character makes just a late appearance here.) It’s nice to see a period film in which bisexuality is not greatly fussed over, and same-sex relations are not a source of repressed torment and despair. Some of the attractively produced film’s period flavor is less than convincing. But then again, what do I know about postwar bohemian culture in Helsinki? (It seems off that star Poysti dances to big band music as if she’s in a mosh pit—until closing-credits footage of the real Jansson shows doing just the same.)
If you’re looking for Moomin lore, this may not be an ideal biopic. Still, director Zaida Bergroth unfolds this partially-illuminating take with a graceful, sometimes artful hand. If you’re impressed with Tove, it’s worth tracking down a discomfiting psychological suspense tale she made a decade ago, The Good Son. Tove opens Fri/4 at theaters including the Embarcadero, Shattuck, and Smith Rafael Film Center.
Finally guaranteed US arthouse distribution after years of festival acclaim (including at SF’s Berlin & Beyond, which gave him a mini-retrospective last week), German director Christian Petzold has greeted that moment with an oddball effort that’s probably the least characteristic work of his career to date. While it reunites the stars of his last film Transit, Undine is otherwise atypical: A fantasy-tinged romance in which our heroine may be a sort of mermaid. (The titular term is usually applied to water nymphs and other fantastical beings associated with that element.)
Paula Beer plays a Berlin city historian and lecturer whose seeming professional unflappability is disturbed when a lover (Jacob Matschenz) tells her he’s seeing someone else. Reminding him he’d said he would love her “forever,” she warnsm “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” to which he replies, “Stop that crap.” Yet we sense she’s not making a threat so much as acknowledging some sad curse she is bound to. She soon meets Franz Rogowski’s marine diver. He also has a preexisting lover, but mutual sparks override that. However, Undine does seem to bring a kind of watery doom to her relationships, assuring that their new amour will turn both obsessive and life-endangering.
This murky whimsy with appealing performers has a certain lyrical piquancy. But Petzold’s sensibility is not one that can convey (or perhaps even believe in) passion. His air of discreet, intellectual detachment makes this well-crafted curio alluring without being especially enchanting, or meaningful. Opening Fri/4 in theaters (including Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas), as well as on digital and VOD platforms, it’s an objet d’art one can admire, while the relevant emotions remain remote.
Edge of the World
Odd in a different way is this handsome throwback of an historical adventure, set (as an opening text tells us) in “1839. A Time of Empires. The British rule half the Earth.” The throwback part is that even as it chides boorish supporting characters for their racist attitudes, scenarist Rob Allyn and director Michael Haussman’s film seems to believe in a kind of colonialist “white man’s burden” in which the gentleman of the enlightened West is duty-bound to “civilize” these “savages” of the Far East.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Brooke, an India-born Englishman exploring Borneo with a handful of companions (including his cousin Dominic Monaghan) when they get in the middle of conflict between headhunters, pirates, and two princes each hoping to someday be the next Sultan of Brunei. Usefully intervening, Brooke somehow wound up becoming the first “White Rajah” of Sarawak, a post he held for over a quarter-century, until his death in 1868.
Edge of the World glosses over the less savory aspects of real-life Brooke’s career (some of them just persistent rumors), delivering a sort of Heroic Nature Boy and Advanced Asianophile. That’s apt enough for a film that veers between the gaga outdoors lyricism of Terrence Malick, and the slightly condescending slumming-amongst-the-natives “sensuality” of 1940s British tropical romances. Some of which is pretty creaky, if also very pretty. But even taken with a huge grain of salt, one’s ability to swallow it is undercut by Rhys Meyers, a wildly uneven talent who not for the first time is the most problematic actor in his own starring vehicle. Delivering often hokey lines in a whisper-croak for hollow “intensity,” looking wrecked rather than swashbuckley, he is no Lord Jim. Indeed, he seems more apt for the Old Rummy character in Kipling-type movies of yesteryear, that supporting “type” who’d provide sodden comedy relief before dying of a tsetse fly or poisoned dart.
Lushly picturesque if not quite epic in scale, the film nonetheless gets more grandiosely silly as the weight of heroism grows heavier on this puny figure’s shoulders, ’til you’re laughing at the shameless gall with which the Haussman forces him to mimic Martin Sheen at Apocalypse Now’s climax. The result is a chunk of old-fashioned period travelogue exotica that proves sometimes they do “make ‘em like they used to,” yet also demonstrates why maybe they shouldn’t. Edge (which was duly titled The White Rajah before its makers realized that might not play too well) is bypassing theaters for digital and VOD platforms—rather a pity, since its undeniable visual attributes would’ve looked fine on the big screen.