Pride and Prejudice: Short movie reviews

…Sorry for the title. Anyway, since I am backward in all things, I waited until the end of June to watch some films about lgbt lives. In order of when I watched them.

Transamerica: This movie made me think a bit about the difference between stereotypical characters and iconic ones. I think Julia Serrano may even name this movie specifically in Whipping Girl when she’s talking about the tropes filmmakers use to distance their audience from trans characters: The very first scene shows Bree (Felicity Huffman) doing her makeup, putting on a femininity we’re supposed to see as a mask.

Transamerica is intended to be a heartwarming story in which Bree’s therapist won’t write a recommendation for sex-reassignment surgery unless Bree reconciles with the son she fathered lo these many years ago. An epic cross-country road trip ensues, with Bree hiding both gender and parentage from her hustler son Toby (Kevin Zegers); they meet scammers, good Samaritans, and Bree’s family of origin, and in spite of Bree’s lies and Toby’s anger they eventually do bond.

Bree is intensely stereotypical. Huffman’s performance aims at effeminacy, not femininity or womanhood. Bree is flouncy and fussy, uncomfortable and pearl-clutchy, and incredibly self-absorbed. If she were any more of a Hollywood trans cliche she’d be a serial killer.

Does that mean the character could never work? Huggy Bear (“more man than you’ll ever be… and more woman than you’ll ever get”), or Bryn from The Disco Years, to whom I pay tribute in my book, are pretty much flamboyant bitchy gays, and they’re fantastic. They’re iconic. Felicity Huffman is a terrific actress–her performance here is so careful, so mannered, in a way that almost feels real. On paper you could argue that Bree has been given a rigid model of womanhood to conform to, and that’s why everything feels so off. You could argue that years of hiding explain the discomfort, and that people who have struggled for a long time to figure out what their pain is telling them often do become self-absorbed. (I mean, I think more often they don’t, but that is a thing that could happen.) I think Huffman could mince through a different movie and genuinely stir my heart. But Bree always feels much more like the filmmakers want to exhibit to us not a flawed human character but a Real (Almost Convincing!) Manlady. So why is that?

Honestly, I think the biggest reason is that every other aspect of the film is so predictable. The musical choices are bland (except for the Dolly Parton over the end credits, I’ll never say a harsh word about La Parton). The characters are painted with broad moralistic strokes. Like, the hustler kid thinks people only value him for his body… because that’s the most poignant kind of hustler to be. It’s bowled right down the middle of the sentimentality lane, and it knocks down all the Hallmark pins. In this world Bree doesn’t get to be a hard-bitten human, because nobody does. So Bree feels like an anthropological example of Them, when in a different movie she could feel like one of us.

The trailers on the DVD were a trip, though. A film called The Libertine, about the Earl of Rochester and how great debauchery is?, and a hero picture about the woman who brought nudie revues to England. And after each of these advertisements for the transgressively liberating power of male lust, that triangle logo: Presented by the Weinstein Company.

Appropriate Behavior: This was a fun indie confection about Shirin (Desiree Akhavan), an Iranian-American chick in gentrifying New York who’s just broken up with her rhyming white girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Hijinks ensue as Shirin tries to get Maxine back–or at least get back at her–while also somehow paying the rent and mmmmmmmmmaaaaayyyybe coming out to her high-pressure family. There are some very fun scenes gently mocking the film’s woke inhabitants; the most sharp-edged humor comes in the book-club scene, where Shirin’s revenge fantasy and an anonymous man’s painful personal history combine to derail a discussion of discrimination against lgbt people in the criminal justice system.

I loved failbot hot mess Shirin a lot, and I loved Akhavan, and that got me through the clumsy interweaving of flashbacks and the frankly kinda too-gentle comedy. I loved Shirin’s parents (Hooman Majd and especially Anh Duong). The film ends with three highly symbolic actions, and to be honest, I did not understand what they were supposed to mean or how they fit together. Something about moving on?? I hope not, that’s boring.

Caveat sapphist: There are some jarring bits making fun of trans people, which I can see fitting with the characters but which don’t play any obvious role in the movie; and I’m sort of surprised they’re there given what I imagine the film’s intended audience to be. There is also some softcore and a bit of cheesecake. You will know to what extent these facts color your willingness to watch the film. It is cute and fun enough but it is hardly worth displeasing your Creator and Savior, you know?

Pariah: Another indie film with a captivating lead–Adepero Oduye just glows with winsome, confused youth as Alike (ah-lee-kay; she goes by “Lee”), a 17-year-old hiding her trips to lesbian clubs from her strict parents. Lee lives in the part of New York that’s definitely not gentrifying. The young lesbians in this film’s all-black cast of characters rely on each other–keep an eye on where people spend the night, and why. Lee’s best friend (Pernell Walker) offers a girl with nowhere else to go a place to crash and food from the fridge, in a brief scene that expresses Lee’s own constraints, fears, and desperation more than any melodrama could.

The film looks great. It takes place mostly at night, and it glows with neon; it’s a hot, youthful film, with pulsing or shimmering music and cool clothes. The three young actresses, Oduye, Walker, and Aasha Davis, are all stellar; they capture the body language and facial expressions of three teenagers at very different places in their journey toward maturity, self-gift, and honesty.

The problem, to the extent that there’s a problem with a film which I think you will want to see if the description interests you, is that the script is sometimes painfully cliched. Lee’s mom (Kim Wayans) has one heart-wrenching moment, as she gasps to herself, “Okay–okay–” all alone in her dark kitchen, but overall she is solely the film’s villain, obsessed with image at the expense of her children and her marriage. Lee’s first semi-relationship proceeds by the book: the first-kiss freakout; the closet-case withdrawal and betrayal. Lee’s supportive English teacher encourages her awful poetry, because of course she does (“You can go deeper,” kill me now); and the awful poetry forms the voice-over for the film’s ending, because of course it does. I love Lee as a character, I love her best friend, and the film’s climactic violence is real and raw–I did not feel like that part was done cheaply at all. These characters deserve a better world, and I guess I mean that in more than one sense.


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