06th May2015

‘Boy Meets Girl’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Stars: Michael Galante, Michelle Hendley, Jean Devereux Koester, Ethan Major, Scott Martineck, Christopher McHale, Benj Mirman, Randall Newsome, Jacob Perkins, Joseph Ricci | Written and Directed by Eric Schaeffer

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My gender identity is complex, but my life experiences intersect frequently with those of trans women and it’s a category I feel proud to be partially resident in.  I dress femme, I’m starting estrogen in a couple weeks, I’ve flirted with voice training, and when I go out for a walk it’s pretty solid odds that at least one passer-by is going to scream some shopworn slur at me.  This review was a deeply personal experience for me, and it’s as much a breakdown of my thoughts on life as a trans person as it is a dissection of a sweet, uncomplicated rom-com.

There are several longstanding traditions in Western film and television regarding trans women.  First, most trans woman characters are played by cisgender men(Normal, Breakfast on Pluto, The World According to Garp, Second Serve, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Soldier’s Girl, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Dog Day Afternoon, Dressed to Kill, The Crying Game, and on and on…) and sometimes by cisgender women(The Jeffersons, Tales of the City, TransAmerica).  Second, trans women are walking jokes or “traps” who “lure” men into sleeping with them.  These prejudices are an ugly stain on the entertainment industry, and Boy Meets Girl‘s defiance of both makes it almost inexpressibly welcome.

Seeing newcomer Michelle Hendley, an actual trans woman, nail the role of Ricky Jones is a thing of beauty.  Eric Schaeffer’s Boy Meets Girl may not be perfect, and it may stray sometimes into broad and ham-handed territory, but its charismatic cast and Hendley’s multifaceted performance turn it into something special.  From a simple story about a working-class girl who dreams of fashion school in New York and gets tangled up briefly with a beautiful debutante comes something special and raw, a look at someone fearlessly self-possessed and determined to live on their own terms.

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Ricky, unlike the meager lineup of trans women characters in fiction before her, is painted as a full and complicated person.  Secretive, sarcastic, distant, and deceptively flippant, Ricky designs clothing and breaks hearts with equal flair.  She has a loving father, an adoring younger brother, and an affably clueless but good-hearted best friend in Robbie(a charming, unaffected Michael Welch).  She tells everyone her mother, who left the family out of what may in part have been shame over Ricky’s identity, died of cancer, but she also treasures the memory of her mother’s unconditional love.  “You are perfect in every way, sweet boy,” she whispers in her brother’s ear, transmuting her own suffering into an affirmation.

Nothing in Boy Meets Girl happens according to an ideal trans-positive narrative.  That’s good.  The world is a messy place and Ricky is shown to have a safe harbor in her family, so the knocks and thumps she takes at the hands of Francesca’s mother and fiance, a confused and jealous Robby, and even her own absent mother don’t manifest the grinding, nihilistic pessimism that dogs so many stories about trans women.  People use the wrong words, people ask Ricky rude, clueless, and downright repulsive questions, and she suffers under the weight of it even while trying to bear up with grace.  This is living while trans, a constant struggle to make the people you love feel safe while you ease them into comfort with your identity, often while battling for that comfort yourself.

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Francesca and her fiance, David, form the film’s clearest inroad toward functioning as educational material.  As two rich, beautiful cisgender people they are at a loss as to how to relate to Ricky.  David, terrified that the world will discover he slept with Ricky(out of genuine attraction) during high school, uses naked bigotry to keep her out of his life.  Francesca, even in the middle of sex with Ricky, can’t stop commenting on her body and how it diverges from “normal” bodies.  Ricky engages, but her tension in the moment and her later insecurity when she and Robby finally hook up after admitting that they’re in love betrays that those comments and questions are felt.  Ricky may love herself, she may feel fine discussing her penis and her sex life, but it’s hard to function as both a person being desired and an object of curiosity.

You don’t see a lot of two halves of a couple frankly discussing their shared attraction to and sexual history with a single person.  David and Francesca’s conversation about their feelings for Ricky is appropriately meandering and unpolished; two people with varying degrees of ignorance discussing a subject entangled with their most intimate feelings is never going to look great all around, and relieving the specter of David’s panicked prejudice is necessary catharsis for the film’s all-hands-on-deck happy ending.  He wanted Ricky, experienced being with her, and then resorted to deeply ugly behavior in order to secure his place in mainstream high society and his identity as a straight man.  The film uses this story to explain, not excuse, his behavior, even if the touch it takes is a bit light considering he showed a clear capacity for violence toward both Ricky and Francesca.

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The throughline of Ricky’s youthful self holding up title cards about her mother’s choice to leave the family isn’t the best-integrated thing I’ve ever seen.  It sort of floats alongside the main narrative before building to a stay-positive montage with a fundamental misunderstanding of why people harm themselves and commit suicide, but showing Ricky’s struggle to get through adolescence is a good move.  Youth is turbulent for everyone and more so for trans teens coming to grips with familial trauma and issues of identity.

Ricky’s dream of fashion school, deferred by a painful rejection letter, is brought to life again by an online fundraising campaign orchestrated by Robby, Francesca, and David.  The world, seeing Ricky’s beautiful designs and hearing her story, pours out love for her and the film ends with a frenetic, excited kiss between her and Robby as they drive out of Kentucky and into the wide world.  The sex scene between the two, shot riverside at night, is intimate and heated, the actors’ chemistry bringing it the rare quality of actual sexiness.  Watching two people want each other is so rarely captured with any hint of authenticity.

Just as raw, the scene in which Robby lashes out at Ricky taps into a fear I’ve often felt: the fear that the people I love are humoring me rather than truly seeing me as I see myself.  Robby, jealous of Ricky’s affair with Francesca and irate that its end has come and gone unremarked, berates Ricky for seeing herself as special, for breaking people’s hearts, and at last for “not being a real anything.”  His angry backpedaling wins him no points, and when he stridently asks if she knows he’s the only one who’s been on her side the whole time, her response cuts to the bone: “Of course I know that, Robby, and that’s why I’ve always trusted that you were the only person in this world who didn’t secretly feel this way about me.”

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The film isn’t always elegant.  It uses the term “biological woman” like it’s going out of style and it feels its budget in its small cast and limited number of indoor locations, especially during the under-crowded party at Francesca’s mansion.  Schaeffer’s script lurches sometimes in its transitions, but it treats its characters with human compassion and it shows a trans woman’s life as more than just a sad public interest story or garish tabloid fodder.  When Ricky steps naked out of the river, confronting Robby’s confession of his feelings for her with her unornamented body and forcing him to examine his thoughts and prejudices, she’s asserting herself as someone worthy of love and unblemished in her own eyes.  It’s a moment that could easily have read as crass and surgically focused, but the film goes out of its way to make it clear that Ricky is secure in her womanhood and doesn’t conflate transition with medical procedures.

In the end, Boy Meets Girl is a funny, sexy, heartfelt rom-com well worth shelving next to Love Actually and other stalwarts, but it’s also a critical film in its portrayal of a trans woman’s experience as a human one.  The idea that trans girls growing into womanhood will have a film like this to look to is crucially, unbelievably important.

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