Sometimes those crapped-out old adages say exactly what a critic means to say, and for me Boy Meets Girl brings to mind the one about broken clocks. Here is a film that sees two things with startling clarity, and that sees everything else through a sad blur of stereotype and didacticism.
This is especially frustrating in a film that counts subversion among its key goals. Boy Meets Girl chronicles the social and sexual interactions of a transgendered Kentucky girl named Ricki (Michelle Hendley), as her long-time best friend Robby (Michael Welch), and her new acquaintance Francesca (Alexandra Turschen). The film’s goal is to take two exhausted tropes—the small-town melodrama and the troublesome love triangle—and reinvigorate them by putting a fully imagined trans character at the center of things. Or perhaps it aims to do the opposite: to set these old genre toolboxes in the service of creating one of cinema’s first full-blooded trans characters. At any rate, these are honorable and interesting aims, and writer/director Eric Schaeffer has given us a film with some honorable and interesting aspects.
As I suggested above, two of those aspects deserve special mention. For one thing, Schaeffer and his DPs give us an accurate depiction of small-town life in the globalized iPhone era. Tossing out all the babyish backwater cliches, the film shows us a world where the filling and opening of the tunnel-top mailbox is still its own little ritual, but where YouTubing is now a typical form of youthful recreation. In addition to history and sociology, Schaeffer grasps the geography; as an occasional attendee of honest-to-god Wealthy-Redneck backyard-parties, I especially appreciated how even the upper-crustiest house on screen has a touch of the true rustic, and how Schaeffer shoots the clumps of party guests spilling into the wild green background like run-off from a just-dropped wine-glass. Anyone who’s so much as swung a screen door in a town like this will recognize it here.
Furthermore, anyone who enjoys original, well-developed characters will appreciate the movie’s protagonist. Over the past few years, television has brought us a gratifying passel of fully realized trans characters, each of them freed from the Madonna-Magdalene baggage that’s burdened most previous portrayals. With Michelle Hendley’s Ricki, the cinema rises to that challenge. And, for both regular films buffs and LGBT folks like myself, that’s quite significant.
This is not some doomed beauty damned by a bad background of the seersucker or wife-beater variety. Better yet, this is not some unseemly PC Tinkerbell, fairy-dusting over the complexities of queer life while teaching other fortunate souls How To Be Themselves. By the time we meet Ricki, she’s shaken victimhood by dint of her own shrewdness. She’s taken that most fearsome of small-town truths—that everyone knows everything about everyone—and twisted it to her advantage. She knows that she can shut up the bigoted football players by barging into the car like a lady from a Blake Shelton song. She knows that she can placate many a local adult by applying the right kind of honeyed manners. And she knows that when she’s alone with her family and with Robby, she can be sassy, dreamy, truthful self.
All this feels fresh, and it’s due largely to Hendley’s innate talent; a Cosmetology-school grad making her big-screen debut, she’s a real find. As I look over these aforementioned early scenes, I’m tempted to compare her work to that of Jennifer Lawrence, but the truth is that J-Law is simply the standard by which we now measure the comparative realness of all young thespians—and Hendley, using her own unique gifts, comes fairly close to that standard.
Hendley also does right by the darker and more complicated moments, which multiply as the love triangle intensifies. Her trajectory is the opposite of your average on-screen minority, because her burgeoning feelings toward Francesca and Robby don’t unleash her identity. Instead, they upset it. For the first time in years, she’s in a situation that requires her to express herself new ways; she’s come undone. Hendley is truthful to the messiness of that undoing. Watch her eyes and her arms in her early scenes with Francesca, and notice how she seems to be testing what she can get away with—a test she hasn’t had to undertake in a long time. And, when things finally come to a head with Robby, notice how her tears come down gradually, and not all at once. As Ricki loses control, Hendley shows us just how in control she is, and impresses us by using her gifts with such honesty. Welch and Turchen are also quite good as Robby and Francesca, both of them balancing surprise with character consistency. This cast, centered by its breakout lead, is working to create something truthful.
Too bad, then, that the other aspects of the film are often working against them. The press notes tell me that Schaeffer is “an articulate advocate for the transcendent power of friendship and love over gender and sexuality.” This is all well and good until he starts advocating at the expense of his own drama. Too often, the man treats us to preachy interruptions that seem to nudge the actual movie to the side of the screen. Before Ricki and Francesca can flirt, they must banter back and forth about the finer points of estrogen injections. Before they can hook-up, they must undergo a long and complicated talk about Ricki’s privates—a talk that, in real life, might have lasted for two hot-breathed seconds. But Schaeffer wants to be thorough. He wants to answer whatever trans-related questions your Average Audience Member might have. The apotheosis of the trend occurs when Ricki’s putting her little brother to bed. It’s a nice scene, but then Schaeffer has to put a frustrating button on it; the kid has to ask Ricki, out of nowhere, how she feels about cis-gendered kiddos like him. “Is it okay that I like to play football?” It’s like someone gave Judith Butler control over a 1950s PSA.
Those who are unsympathetic to Schaeffer’s goals may find these interludes to be the final rainbow-colored straw; those who want their lefty politics embodied in the culture may find cause to celebrate. For me, these moments are minor irritants, breaking rhythms and betraying a lack of confidence in Hendley, whose open face will do more for the trans movement than a thousand fictionalized Q&A’s.
The film’s major issue, though, is how it treats its supporting characters. The three leads and the town they live in are certainly well-drawn, but said town’s other inhabitants are depressingly stereotypical sketches. Ricki’s father is pleasant enough, and gets a couple of witty scenes (like the one revolving around the word “acumen”), but he’s a one-note nice-guy. Ricki’s little brother is almost robotically precocious. And don’t get me started on Francesca’s family. There’s her towering, temperemental father. There’s her blatantly homophobic fiance, who offers Fox New nostrums while equating “trannies” with terrorists. And, worst of all, there’s her mother, who Schaeffer seems to have created by taking The Help’s Hilly Holbrook and plugging her into an amplifier. As a life-time resident of the Rick Perry State, I’ve met people with all these qualities. But Schaeffer’s supporting characters don’t conform to these stereotypes; they are these stereotypes, and are basically nothing else. That’s a problem in a film that takes complexity of human identity as its central subject.
So is Schaeffer’s seriously wrong-headed insistence on knocking these people down for cheap laughs. It’s not enough that just about everyone in Francesca’s family is one-dimensionally hateful—it’s that they have to be gleefully punished for it via oh-snap disses and even let-me-at-em physical attacks. And we’re supposed to be gleeful, too. This hyprocritical notion is something I now refer to as Dead Poets syndrome. As you may recall, that was the film that exhorted us to Whitmanesque open-heartedness whilst asking us to applaud when Meanies got punched in the face. In this movie, we’re expected to nod piously at the “transcendence of love,” and then take a break every now and then to clap at the verbal and physical humiliation of some chicken-fried bigots. I’m bothered by films that coat themselves in lovey-dovey,”Imagine”-istic sentiment whilst spreading their humanist sympathies so thinly.
But at the same time, I’m galvanized by characters who prove themselves both original and real, who, in a climate of condensed dimensions and endless stereotypes, show both color and blood. Both because of and in spite of her trans identity, Ricki is such a character. But oy vey, making her acquaintance sure does come at a cost.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.