Queer Film Fest 2020: ’52 Tuesdays’ and ‘Tangerine’

Two radically different explorations of trans lives are in the spotlight today, including one of the few transmasculine narratives I’ve seen. Nicely, both 52 Tuesdays and Tangerine are DIY indies with fascinating production models.

I don’t remember hearing of 52 Tuesdays before I started looking around for LGBTQ films I’d never seen to consider for this project, but I was immediately drawn to the concept: A teen girl, Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), keeps up a video diary as her mother begins undergoing a year-long gender confirmation process to begin a new life as James (Del Herbert-Jane). James and Billie have an extraordinarily close relationship at the start of the film, but James thinks it would be best for Billie to live with her father (Beau Travis Williams) for the year and visit only once a week (hence the title).

The film, which features nonprofessional actors who all acquit themselves nicely, was even shot over the course of a year in Adelaide, Australia. Director Sophie Hyde and screenwriter Mathew Cormack apparently even gave the cast sections of the script a week at a time.

Over the course of the year, Billie begins experimenting with her sexuality with older schoolmates Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), while James attempts a relationship of his own while dealing with an unexpected medical setback. Interspersed with the film’s narrative are distracting flashes of world events (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, etc.) that, I guess, are meant to show how much can change in a year but, I mean, we can kind of see that just by following the story’s own twists and turns.

A bigger problem is the fact that the film focuses largely on Billie’s travails instead of James’ story, which is little-told in film. Herbert-Jane, who initially signed on as a gender consultant on the film, identified as non-gender-conforming when the film was made, but I can’t find anything current on the interwebs to know how they identify now. Regardless, they do a sensational job at conveying the mental anguish James is feeling, troubled by a sense of guilt that he waited too long to transition and confused over why his beloved daughter is rebelling against him.

The transmasculine experience isn’t explored nearly as often (though I recommend Netflix’s continuation of Tales of the City for a good one), so I guess it’s only natural that I was left with wanting more from 52 Tuesdays. But I’m happy to have found it, nonetheless.

I was also happy for the opportunity to revisit Tangerine, the breakthrough feature by writer/director Sean Baker (whose The Florida Project was one of the best films of 2017). What set it apart, aside from its black trans leads (played by nonprofessional black trans actors), was the fact that Baker shot the whole film on iPhone 5s fitted with anamorphic lenses. That gives it a terrific energy that served as a great reminder of what indie filmmaking could and should be, and though low-budget, Baker’s skill makes sure the film with its super-saturated colors and inventive compositions never looks cheap.

Trans actors Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez were new to film, and their inexperience shows a little, but it was more than made up for by their authenticity. Tangerine was released between Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl, and though both Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne were nominated for Oscars (with Leto winning) for playing trans characters, you can immediately tell the difference between someone living that life and someone donning it like a costume.

Besides its bold look, innovative production and commitment to diversity in casting, Tangerine is just plain fun. Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day stint in jail when her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip that her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) was stepping out on her with a biological woman while Sin-Dee was locked up. That sets her off on a day (Christmas Eve, in fact) consumed with revenge, tearing across the red-light district of Los Angeles, while Alexandra tries to find people to catch her act in a nightclub that evening.

The film’s energy just keeps growing, eventually looping in a married Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) who’s a frequent flyer with Alexandra as well as his wife and mother-in-law. And though seeing another story about trans sex workers so soon after watching Disclosure gave me a little pause, Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t judged by Baker or his iPhone. They’re imperfect but brave, and while they make plenty of mistakes, Baker shows extraordinary grace in depicting them, especially in the touching conclusion.

Up next: Cruising and Stranger by the Lake

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