DeRosa: Life & Art in Transition (2021)
Angelo Thomas is an impressive young filmmaker. At his college, the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, the man was able to make a $50,000 feature film, 2020’s The Incredible Jake Parker, the first undergraduate film in over 30 years. Now he’s right back with another feature, the documentary project DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition, illuminating the story of artist Felicia DeRosa, a CCAD grad and professor who lived most of her life as a man before accepting herself and coming out as trans at the age of 43. The 65-minute documentary is nicely polished and deeply empathetic and worth an hour of your time to learn more about DeRosa’s harrowing and inspirational life.
The biggest question any documentary must ask itself is whether there is a story here that can support a deeper dive. I suppose this same question should be given to fictional narratives, can it support a film, but documentaries are limited by the experiences of their subjects. Fortunately, with DeRosa, there is plenty to talk about and the hour running time feels more than enough time to sincerely cover one woman’s journey of self-discovery and an evolving love story where two people recognized they were better together no matter the changes. DeRosa is a natural gabber and quite capable of compellingly retelling her story with bittersweet personal insights and wisdom. She’s an easy person to sit in front of a camera and just say, “Go.” It also helps that the production has access to what must have been hours upon hours of DeRosa’s home recordings. She was prolific in documenting her feelings and anxieties at different points. It’s a wealth of resources for the documentary to be able to immediately supply DeRosa at different points of her life’s journey articulating her struggles and anxieties in the moment. It reminded me a bit of the documentary Val, extensively using Val Kilmer’s home movies enough so that it credited him with cinematography. DeRosa is all over the movie and to our benefit.
As expected, much of the movie examines individual and societal views on gender identity, a subject that is simultaneously becoming more normalized and scandalized. As more and more trans people discuss their personal journeys of discovery and acceptance, our media and arts are helping to build compassion and understanding. At the same time, as gay rights have become more acceptable across the political spectrum, the new focal point for conservative hysteria and political opportunism has shifted to trans rights. No longer is the thought of two gay people getting married the boogeyman for fundamentalist outrage; now it’s the entire idea of trans people using restrooms and playing sports and more or less existing in a public manner. DeRosa’s own experiences may be similar to many who grow up closeted in households and have to pretend to be someone they are not. There is a social good to hearing more stories of those marginalized from our society and finding their strength and advocacy to inspire others to keep pushing forward.
I expected DeRosa’s mother to be disapproving. Upon discovering her young son playing dress up in feminine clothing, DeRosa’s mother went into a frenzy and kept beating her child. As tragic as this setback is, it’s not uncommon. However, DeRosa’s experiences with her mother become even more gut-wrenching when she reveals how, at the age of 13, her mother raped her while remarking how similar they looked like their father. I had to walk out of the room after this awful revelation and pause the movie. It’s heavy and head-spinning and would send anyone into a depressive spiral. I completely understand the reluctance to dig further without seeming to exploit DeRosa’s sexual trauma for inflated drama. That’s the challenge for any documentary filmmaker. How far do you push your subjects and when do you cross a moral line? DeRosa shares therapeutic letters she has written directed to her mother, and years later it’s still a tangle of complicated emotions to process. DeRosa’s mother is left behind as a topic, fittingly, as DeRosa ventures into independence. She gets news that her mother is on death’s door, and DeRosa is the one who must decide whether to pull the plug and end her mother’s life. That’s all kinds of messed up.
Another aspect of the documentary that stands out is how much compassion and empathy it builds from the complicated relationship with DeRosa’s wife. Gwen comes from a conservative Christian upbringing and her early relationship with her husband is supportive; they’re clearly each other’s person as they’ve only been apart for twenty minutes in the past eighteen years. Hearing from Gwen’s side is more than simply checking in on how the dutiful wife is dealing with her husband’s identity. I recall 2015’s The Danish Girl that seemed to elevate the grieving perspective of the “poor yet supportive wife” over the turmoil of the one actually going through the gender reassignment surgery for the first time in modern history (and lead to Oscar victory for Alicia Vikander). It was intended to be a considerate and compassionate ploy, but the counterbalance also made it so this perspective was the dominant one, a cis gendered heterosexual spouse who couldn’t quite understand but stood by her man as he chose to outwardly transition to a woman. With this documentary, the inclusion of Gwen enlarges the story and she’s by far the best secondary voice to provide insight for DeRosa. She also knows her story is supplemental but also important. She’s supportive of her wife and acknowledges her own questions and processing, but through this journey it’s allowed her to personally reflect upon her own queer identity. Felicia and Gwen, while not filmed together in interviews, are eminently loving of one another, and to watch them speak about one another is a reflection of grace.
As far as documentaries go, this one is professionally packaged for only having a meager budget of $8,000. It’s sharply edited and with a multi-camera setup for its interviews that allows more dynamic visuals and coverage opportunities. The music is sparse but appropriate, and the editing is smooth as it incorporates personal photos and extensive home video recordings to better give voice to the idea or feeling in that moment. This is assembled like a professional documentary and the interview subjects, while only limited to two people, have plenty to say and are engagingly laid back. I wish the movie was a little longer, but as a documentary, an hour’s length of content seems more fitting in our age of endless streaming docus-series. I’m impressed with Thomas’ finesse at going from fictional narrative filmmaking to documentary filmmaking. He proves a natural for the material. DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition is a confirmation that Thomas can adapt his talents to his subjects and aims with skill and compassion. DeRosa is an agreeable hour of your time and proves another sign than Thomas is artistically thriving.
Nate’s Grade: B