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Sundance: Putting the T in LGBT Cinema

From the Sundance Film Festival here is Glenn on three great new editions to LGBT cinema.

One of my goals for my first trip to Sundance was to see as much LGBT cinema as possible. This year has proven to be particularly strong in this arena with films like Ira Sachs’ recently acquired Love is Strange and Desiree Akhavan’s ought-to-be acquired Appropriate Behaviour covering the “l”, the "g" and the “b” of that acronym and are soon to be reviewed by Nathaniel. I, however, found myself catching three very strong titles that deal with transgender men and women, which took me especially by surprise. Like Gun Hill Road, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Orange is the New Black and, yes, even Dallas Buyers Club, cinema visibility of trans issues are becoming more and more common and, in the case all three films below, feature actual transgender or gender neutral personalities. This, dear readers, is what we call a winner.

Please note that people who identify as gender variant or without gender go by the pronoun “they”.

A Canadian docu-musical, an Australian coming-of-age drama, and a Robert Reford production after the jump.

My Prairie Home
Chelsea McMullan’s beguiling Canadian documentary opens with its image flipped upside down. This initial feeling of topsy-turvy is perhaps one of the most literal visual representations of confused sexuality that you’ll see on screen, and yet it’s one that is entirely appropriate for this documentary about Canadian pop-folk singer Rae Spoon given the way they have flipped the script on their conservative upbringing. The extremely talented singer spends their days criss-crossing around Canada performing intimate shows at, so it seems, any place that will take them with gigs that blend diary-honest storytelling with blissful, melodic song-singing.

Rae’s teenage acceptance of homosexuality, including how they “initially thought [they were] gay”, and having a girlfriend in high school, their ability to connect better through song than conversation, and dealing with their father’s tyrannical parenting lead Rae to leave home where they would met transgender people for the first time and confirm the ambiguous waters that their gender waded in. These memories form the basis of My Prairie Home, which is one half coming-of-age documentary and one half concert film.

McMullan uses several visual techniques such as VHS video recorders, stylish yet minimalist music videos sequences, and 8mm aesthetics to help capture the conflicting beauty of Spoon’s hometown region as it details the twisted love affair that they have to it. Rae’s original songs and original music score echo these themes of finding comfort in one’s home, and much like Searching for Sugarman, it’s hard to imagine viewers hearing her songs full of such ache, wit and emotion and not wanting to purchase it right away. My Prairie Home is melodic, poetic, and beautifully complicated bliss. An utterly beguiling documentary discovery.

Grade: A-
Distribution: Still looking in the USA, but was released in Canada last year. The incredible soundtrack is on Spotify.

52 Tuesdays
Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays begins with mother telling daughter about the decision to transition from Jane into James. Billie is 16 and takes the news with relative ease before moving in with her biological father and only meeting with James every Tuesday afternoon after school. As her mother begins the path of surgery, testosterone and a second round of “coming out” to co-workers and family, Billie’s own sexual awakening is mirrored and beautifully detailed by a refreshingly frank and evocative screenplay by Hyde and Matthew Cormack. Shown in wonderful detail, audiences unfamiliar with these issues, or with only a bare knowledge of the subject, are in for an education as well as entertainment.

The mundane and the life-changing go hand-in-hand in this very honest portrayal that never once wrings a false note. Hyde brings such realness and clarity to the issues and along with a cast of fantastic actors – including gender neutral star Del Herbert-James, and newcomers Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Imogen Archer and Sam Althuizen. Cobham-Hervey, especially, is a charming natural and bears an uncanny resemblance to Mia Wasikowska. Sister casting, please.

Echoing its narrative arc (and similar in many ways to Boyhood), 52 Tuesdays was filmed only on Tuesdays over a span of one year, but thankfully the gimmick pays off. The way each actor transforms from Tuesday to Tuesday from as little as the natural, scruffy growth of a teenage boy’s beard to the transforming of a transgender man’s body adds dimension and detail that may otherwise have been ignored. It’s all these little things that help make up a grand whole. This is a powerful, singular piece of filmmaking.

Grade: B+
Distribution: Australia will see a limited release later in 2014, but I wouldn’t count out an America release, at least through VOD.

Drunktown’s Finest
American’s most alcoholic town gets a typically “Sundance indie” treatment in Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest and yet is able to subvert its otherwise standard drama hurdles to form an impressive collage look at some of America’s most complicated individuals. Focusing on those of Navajo origin, three individuals’ stories crossover: a young woman who was adopted by white parents as a child, a bad boy about to enter the army, and a transgender woman who prostitutes herself to closeted locals until her modelling career takes off.

Like I said, it’d be easy for Drunktown’s Finest to succumb to obvious problems, but what eventually comes out of Freeland’s film is a rare glimpse into a world many will never have experienced. Given Robert Redford’s history with the independent festival, his name is rarely actually associated with any individual independent film so seeing his name listed here as an executive producer is a welcome surprise. I wouldn’t have thought the two were a natural fit, but if he had any hand in guiding the film then I thank him. As with any narrative of this kind, contrivances are there, but rarely do they distract. The acting from the predominantly newcomer cast ranges from sketchy to fantastic, including the magnetic Carmen Moore. I was enlightened by Drunktown’s Finest – it’s certainly the first film I’ve ever seen discuss the nadleeh people in the Navajo culture – and found it an impressive debut feature.

Grade: B
Distribution: Likely a festival only title.

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Reader Comments (16)

Please note that people who identify as gender variant or without gender go by the pronoun “they”.

There goes my last shred of tolerance.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Uh, whatever preferred pronoun those characters or an actual person wants they **should** have. Spoon seems to advocate for neutrality but I think there are several members of the transgender community who would feel differently about it.

I think people get confused by the T on the LGBT spectrum because it is a about and sexuality as opposed to the LGB. Glenn, although this is the first I heard of Rae Spoon, you seem to have hit that spot of confusing gender and sexuality.

Anyway, all these films sound super interesting. I only heard about the Ira Sachs film which I am sure will be elegant as his previous works.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I just wanted to mention the pronoun thing because when talking about Rae Spoon or Del Herbert-Jones in pronoun may confuse readers by repeatedly saying "they". It can be tricky to get one's head around, but people need to get used to it. As you say, even when you know about it and try to follow it you can trip up.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

but people need to get used to it

No -- this is an invitation for other groups to adopt their own version of arbitrary identification classes. This is dangerous ground not idyllic utopia.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

What dangerous ground? And why does it matter to you what a person wants to be referred to as? Seems like such a useless thing to get all worked up over and to lose your "tolerance" for others. Or are you just speaking in tired cliches and phrases because you don't seem intelligent enough to process that people are different than you.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRahul

Make-believe isn't equivalent to different.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

If you think transgenderism is make-believe, 3rtful, then I am not sure you had any shred of tolerance to lose at all.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I never thought I'd find this level of intolerance in this site. Come on people, it's freaking 2014!

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

3rtful THIS IS A LAST WARNING. The Film Experience is not the right place for intolerance towards the LGBT community. While I understand the discomfort with having to adapt to new vernacular -- I myself had trouble when Justin Bond wanted people to refer to Justin Bond, one of my all time favorite performers, as "V" instead of 'him' or 'her' because it was one person asking for something super specific from everyone which seemed kind of impossible or too entitled... i wouldn't ask everyone on the planet to start calling me by a new title that only i held -- this is different. This is a new way of referring to a group that shouldn't be that hard to do once everyone adapts to it. )

my point is this: i just can't tolerate speech in the comments that verges on such complete disrespect that you'd refer to someone's identity as "make believe".

TFE is just not the right place for it. Thanks

January 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

To think a poster knowingly clicked on a post dedicated to films about the progress of representation of an oppressed minority and still felt the need to spew as to invalidate that minority and make it a problem about them.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I'm gay and our community isn't a super supportive monolith. Certainly I wouldn't classify myself as a gay conservative. But I see myself articulating things for them when it comes to the subject of transgender people and their current and rapid surfacing to the mainstream.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

This is like talking to royalty and referring to them in the third person. Not good in my opinion.

January 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Pedro: Can you elaborate? I am not even sure what is directly being talked about in that comment.

January 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

CMG - an interesting article can be found at

January 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Please note that people who identify as gender variant or without gender go by the pronoun “they”.

That's not uniform. A lot of gender variant people do this, others use "ze/zir," others work hard to construct sentences without pronouns, others use other methods of self-identity, including using the pronouns they were assigned at birth, or the ones they weren't, or a combination.

I think it's reasonable to use "they," with an explanatory flag, as you've done here, when you're not 100% sure how an individual might wish to be identified.

There's a great article on this stuff here:

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

FWIW, the two gender non-conforming people mentioned in this piece (Rae Spoon and Del Herbert James) have said that they use the "they" pronoun.

January 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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