As we’ve talked about all week, Dog Day Afternoon is much more than a great bank heist film. Most specifically, the surprising inclusion of Leon marks one of the first cinematic instances of a transgender character. It isn’t a perfect portrayal, but it is a sympathetic one—quite progressive for a film more than forty years old. Previously, the most visible instances of trans characters were in over-the-top camp romps like Myra Breckinridge and Glen or Glenda, films that have become beloved cult stories, but are far from the mainstream. Following Dog Day Afternoon transgender characters sadly didn’t became much more visible, and when they were it was mostly in subversive genre films like De Palma’s Dressed to Kill or the 80s horror franchise Sleepaway Camp [spoilers, I suppose]. Come the 1990s, we would see more transgender characters and better portrayals overall—though for every The Crying Game [available on Amazon Prime], Orlando [available on Sundance Now] or Boys Don’t Cry [available on Starz streaming] there was still Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Recently, a more diverse group of transgender stories have come from young independent filmmakers—Tangerine [on Netflix] and Transparent [on Amazon Prime] are perhaps the two most prominent examples. The following streaming recommendations account for the ever-growing and more thoughtful genre.
Laurence Anyways [Xavier Dolan, 2012]
Available on Amazon Prime
From French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, Laurence Anyways is one of the young filmmaker’s most striking and complex films. Already known for telling strong films focused on gay and lesbian characters, his third feature is a definite step forward in terms of style and ambition, depicting ten years in the life of a school teacher struggling with the decision to undergo transition. Melvil Poupaud stars as the title character and delivers a strong and sensitive performance. It is Dolan muse Suzanne Clément, however, as Laurence’s long-term girlfriend, who steals the show. Laurence and Fred’s complex relationship delivers the film’s major emotional stakes, with Fred taking on the brunt of her beau’s surprising and difficult decision making for some heartbreaking moments. Their relationship shows the flexibility of love and gender and closely examines how social constructs form the way we see those we love. Clément is absolutely fierce in the star-making, making me wonder why other directors aside from Dolan have yet to utilize her as well.
52 Tuesdays [Sophie Hyde, 2013]
Available on Netflix
Similar to Laurence Anyways, though more clearly, Sophie Hyde’s Australian drama 52 Tuesdays tells its story through a cis gendered protagonist whose life is shaken by the transition of a close loved one. Here, 16-year-old Billie is coming into her own identity as her mother begins the process of becoming a transgender man. Her parents newly divorced, the film focuses on the six hours each Tuesday night Billie spends with her mother; it is an interesting little narrative device that gives a thorough structure and a real sense of time. Tilda Cobham-Hervey [who also has a significant role in this year’s underseen comedy Girl Asleep] gives a soulful performance, unusually so for an actor of her age. Even with less screen time strictly given to a transgender character than the other films on this list, perhaps the most interesting aspect of 52 Tuesdays is its focus on the specifics of the transition. Not only do we see the impacts her mother’s transition has on Billie, but we really see the psychological, emotional, and physical difficulties, including setbacks that happen through the process. Other focuses of the plot, including Billie’s own budding sexuality, aren’t quite as strong, but the different approach to transgender issues make 52 Tuesdays an important entry to the genre.
Orange Is the New Black [Jenji Kohan, 2013-present]
Available on Netflix
One of Netflix’s cornerstone original programs, Orange Is the New Black has made a star out of Laverne Cox, who is now one of the most prominent transgender actresses working today. With the series unique structure and very large ensemble cast, Sophia Burset isn’t always in the spotlight—but when she is, she always shines. The female prison setting allows for many interesting and relevant questions regarding transgender rights and how society is still struggling with this population. Orange Is the New Black smartly doesn’t over-dramatize these issues, though, and never sensationalizes them. Burset is obviously treated differently than her prison mates and many of the less progressive characters aren’t shy about voicing their opinions on her, but the character’s unique narratives are apart of the whole piece. Through seasons 3 and 4, Burset becomes a more integral character in the show, even as her character disappears for an extended time when put in solitary confinement—her story becomes a particularly heartbreaking look at the mistreatment of prisoners who don’t “fit in” with social norms.
Boy Meets Girl [Eric Schaeffer, 2014]
Available on Netflix
Boy Meets Girl isn’t quite as compelling in its narrative, but an undeniable earnestness goes a long way for Eric Schaeffer’s micro-budget indie. The film follows Ricky [Michelle Hendley], a young trans woman who lives in a culturally conservative Kentucky small town. She becomes quick friends with Francesca, a very conventionally popular woman who is engaged to marry David, Ricky’s former high school tormenter. As Ricky and Francesca’s relationship continues to blossom, they become too close for David’s comfort—and a secret from the past complicates things further. Hendley is a captivating star, especially in a debut film role, and her career hopefully continues to grow [she was recently seen in an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was fun for me to see]. Her performances is definitely rough around the edges, but like Boy Meets Girl in whole, that is part of the eventual charm.
Tomboy [Céline Sciamma, 2011]
Available on Amazon Prime w/ Subscription
Different than the other films on this list, Tomboy examines a transgender character who doesn’t fully understand the societal nature of the issue. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek title refers to 10-year-old Laure who introduces herself to her new community as Mickäel. Tomboy wonderfully inserts this unique character into a more typical coming-of-age plot, though Sciamma provides her typical insight and heart, elevating the film above the glut of the typical coming-of-age tale. The film wonderfully looks at the complexity of gender through young characters who approach the issue much more simply—there is no wrestling over the politics of gender identity between ten year-olds. That doesn’t mean that Laure’s self-identity is cheapened, however, and although the film doesn’t fully characterize her as transgender [I don’t recall the term ever coming up in the film, nor do Laure or her parents really broach the idea] Laure’s desire to present herself as a boy feels assured.