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Huckleberry (2019)

As I’ve been more involved in my local film scene, I’ve gotten to know and befriend many good people and creatives that are following their dreams. My long-standing belief is that any movie is a miracle given the enormous undertaking and collaboration it requires, especially if it’s through the often arcane and contradictory gatekeepers of the studio system in Hollywood. Fortunately, writers and directors just gather what resources they can and make their movies on their own terms rather than waiting. I’ve found that these projects could benefit from sincere and respectful film reviews, and that’s something I can actually contribute to. As with other Ohio film projects, I do happen to know a few people involved in key areas with the movie Huckleberry (currently available for free on Amazon Prime, folks), but I promise to be as objective as possible with any constructive criticism and discussion. It’s an intriguing 77-minute feature with an admirable presentation, good acting, and some plotting missteps that hold it back from hitting its full potential.

In Ohio 1999, Huckleberry “Huck” (Daniel Fisher-Goldman) is trans and living as a man, with the occasional hormone shot via the Internet. He’s living with a foster brother (Yang Miller), aggravating various neighbors and authority figures with his attitude, and not-so-secretly crushing hard on his friend Jolene (Sarah Ulstrup). The problem is she already has a boyfriend, an abusive drug-addict named Clint (Justin Rose) who Huck cannot stand. One night it’s too much for Huck to bear, and he takes it upon himself to provide a reckoning for Clint. However, this confrontation doesn’t quite go as planned and an “unknown attacker” gets back at Huck.

The story of a hero pulled into the spiderweb of a wronged woman in need of protecting is the setup of many an indie thriller and classic Hollywood noir. It’s the scenario of the character getting in over their head and learning that their preconceived notions of the world were naïve. Huckleberry borrows elements from that familiar setup. The direction of the story is very much tied to the lengths Huck will go to protect and/or win over his crush, Jolene. You think this will ultimately create a series of spiraling events that get worse and worse, but that’s also not quite what happens.

Huck is our plucky protagonist unafraid of much, including kissing his crush as his school video project (under different circumstances this act, and his insistence on sharing it to the class knowing Jolene’s potential discomfort, might come across more as creepy). The story does a fine job of establishing a one-sided relationship between Huck and Jolene. She does care for her friend but she’s clearly hesitant about anything beyond platonic, but she doesn’t use Huck’s obvious feelings for overt scheming. It would be easy to have her slide into femme fatale territory and manipulate Huck to take out Clint, but that doesn’t happen. Huck, seeing himself the champion, takes it upon himself to target Clint, and this unrequested intervention actually upsets Jolene and harms Huck’s relationship with her. That was a nice development. By choosing to have Huck incapacitated for a decent portion of the film, Jolene steps into the spotlight. The change in her character is a tad rushed, having to get to a place where she welcomes Huck’s white knight compulsions, but I feel writer/director Roger Hill (Flying Paper) has put together sufficient reasons why she would make her final decision.

This is a low-budget movie that doesn’t feel like a low-budget movie thanks to the admirable professionalism of its presentation and the occasionally stirring cinematography. There were a few moments that made me go, “Wow,” which is exceptionally rare for low-budget films. The photography by Jon Coy (The Turn Out) is gorgeous and makes a painterly use of light. The sets are impeccably chosen as well, making fantastic use of the decaying parts of small-town Ohio to provide a sense of ambience and time and place. There are some judicious shot selections as well, often tethering the camera to a moving object like a car. There’s one shot I thought was really well done where the camera is attached to a shopping cart and we watch Huck place different items inside, each contributing to a bigger, sinister purchasing picture of what lies ahead.

Another sterling facet of Huckleberry is the acting overall. Ulstrup (The Dance of Amal) is a future star waiting to happen. There are several moments that live or die depending upon her line delivery, and she always succeeds, elevating the scene. A tearful confessional late in the movie had me spellbound. She comes across as so natural from scene-to-scene, whether it’s her awkward uncertainty of what to do with her friend’s feelings for her or the hurt and self-loathing she swallows in her abusive relationship. Ulstrup is excellent at hiding the affectations of acting and digging into her character. Fisher-Golden (The Emma Agenda) has an interesting presence and can definitely play to his character’s strengths of know-it-all condescension and coiled anger. The actor’s best moments are when he’s trying to contain the emotions that will spill out. Rose (Super Dark Times) does a fine job conveying a grungy, desperate lowlife who probably knows he’s never going to be cut for a better life than the one he’s eking out. Rose could have gone on autopilot as the “creepy abusive boyfriend” role, but he establishes a, for lack of better word, integrity to the character that reminded me of the better character actors. I could see Scoot McNary (Argo) in this part, and that’s a fine comparison. I want to single out one performer for making the most of it. Consider the No Small Parts Award to Dennis Lee Delaney (Departure), who plays the school principal who clearly has contempt for Huckleberry, referring to him by his feminine birth name. Again, it’s the kind of role that could be a caricature, but Delaney underplays the scene, bringing a greater sense of realism and disdain. At the end of his one scene, I found myself congratulating the actor and hoping casting directors would see this.

Where the movie miscalculates is once Huck is attacked by an unknown assailant. The aftermath takes up maybe a half hour and far too long, which puts the main character in the penalty box and relies upon the established supporting characters to carry the film. This can’t quite work because the supporting cast, with the exception of Jolene, have just existed to serve the protagonist. They don’t feel like they have a real inner life of their own. This makes it even more challenging when the narrative transforms into a “who dunnit?” mystery. The obvious first suspect is Clint, but the movie telegraphs he is not the perpetrator and makes you suspect everyone else, so we’ll get scenes of people acting mysteriously vague and peculiar to keep up the air of mystery. When a character responds to the news of Huck awakening with a look of worry, is that person the culprit? When another character ominously alerts someone that Huck has awoken, it plays like a warning, but ultimately most of these are misdirects. The narrative cannot sustain this extended guessing game because we haven’t gotten to know the supporting characters to the point that we may suspect them. When the eventual culprit is revealed, I literally said seconds before, “Wait, who is this character?” The reveal lacks the impact needed for a mystery because the eventual culprit was so incidental as to be forgotten. Once revealed, I felt like Huckleberry found some renewed life, because now this person had a secret to keep and would they be caught? How far would they go to keep it? If the film were going that route, I would reveal the perpetrator with no mystery early to better luxuriate in that tension of the consequences of this violent act. However, the emphasized mystery doesn’t allow for that, so it places the film in an awkward holding area with characters unable to carry the narrative burden.

There are a few problems with setting the movie in 1999 and one of them is the treatment of being a trans high school student, an important dramatic aspect that doesn’t feel fully explored. Early on, when the movie establishes that our lead character is a trans man, it got my attention a little more, as this is not a perspective often showcased in movies during this time period. I thought it would be a way to make a neo-noir thriller or coming-of-age indie fresh. The problem is that nobody in this Ohio rust belt high school views Huckleberry being trans as any big deal. The only push-back comes from his principal during their hostile meeting. That perspective might work in 2019, after greater trans representation and general cultural understanding, but it feels inauthentic to a Midwestern world of twenty years ago. As somebody who was in high school in the 90s, in Ohio, I can say that any trans student living openly as they felt comfortable would have met some degree of resistance, name-calling, and bullying. The fact that everyone in this high school is so accommodating and understanding is remarkable and remarkably unrealistic.

This also opens up the question over why the filmmakers elected to have Huck be a trans man at all. It doesn’t affect the story in any significant way, beyond maybe one neighbor’s added fury when catching his teen daughter intimate with “another girl.” I suppose you could make the argument that Huck is trying to stake his claim on his identity, on this town, and doesn’t care what people think, but does the character need to be trans to convey this? You could also argue just having the lead character be trans is a positive for diversity and simply having better representation, and that’s true. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that the story had this really interesting perspective and as executed it feels too peripheral. Huck could just have easily been a cis lesbian and achieved the same effect, or even just been a straight cis male. If you’re going to make your protagonist a figure from a marginalized minority group, often the target of bullying and worse, it feels like a narrative disservice to not make that perspective known. This is a very general analogy, but imagine telling the story of an African-American WWII soldier integrated in the armed services and having every person be oblivious to their race and the potential conflict.

Huckleberry clipped along nicely and had many attributes that I admired, from the crisp photography, professional use of visuals and locations to enhance the story and mood, and the overall good acting. The story is only lesser because there are certain choices that don’t feel as best capitalized, from the main character being trans to the inclusion and overlong attention on a mystery that feels like a diversion at best. Also at no point does any character explain why Huckleberry wants to be called Huckleberry, which seems like a moment tailor-made for 90s-centric indie cinema. The story elements were there for an even more engaging, compelling, and unnerving story but it can’t quite maximize that potential. As a result, Huckleberry is an enjoyable and sincere little movie that was knocking on the door of being great. It’s worth your 77 minutes and I think it points toward bigger and even better things for Hill and Ulstrup in particular.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The Danish Girl (2015)

While you watch The Danish Girl, you can feel the full weight of everybody’s good intentions. The filmmakers and cast all seem to realize that they are telling a story that will humanize and help others better understand trans issues. It’s the first sexual reassignment surgery and a community that is still fighting for wider acceptance. Nobody wants to screw up this story and do a disservice to representing the stories of the trans community. You feel the earnest good intentions with every frame, and yet I would argue those same good intentions end up paralyzing the movie and its impact.

Lili Erbe (Eddie Redmayne) is living her life as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown in the 1920s. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is a portrait artist trying to be more than the wife of a famous painter. One day, Gerda’s model is absent and she asks Einar to step in. He puts on stockings, holds a gown to his body, and it’s a revelation. Soon after Einar is wearing women’s garments under his clothes and Gerda dresses him up with makeup and a wig. It’s a fun diversion and something of a turn-on for Gerda, and then her husband informs her that Lili isn’t the costume, Einar is. Lili tries to find a sense of explanation with disdainful psychiatrists and doctors but is deemed aberrant. Lili is struggling with this crisis of identity and self-acceptance, and then a new beginning emerges with a helpful doctor who can physically transform Lili from a man into a woman. The surgery is not without risk but Lili is willing to do whatever it takes to feel whole (note: since Lili is the chosen gender identity for the film’s subject, I shall be referring to her as Lili and using feminine pronouns).

tumblr_ntnkrkvVhh1roci9qo1_1280Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) gives a suitably affecting performance that is full of empathy and a halting sense of fragility. He seems like he’s about to crumble at any moment, his nervous smile and pleading and confused eyes communicating Lili’s trepidation and flights of exciting discovery. Redmayne’s delicate androgynous features and long-limbed dancer’s body play to his strengths, as he adjusts his physicality to reflect his mind’s experimentation of what it would be like to be a woman. There’s a rather lovely visual where Lili visits a peep show in Paris. After a few minutes of bashful eye contact, she begins to mimic the peep show model’s physical poses, and the camera’s focus melts between the two. It feels like a dance between the two and in this simple visual much is communicated. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie lacks the impact of this poignant visual. Redmayne too often retreats into his stable of nervous gesticulations and halted speech. It’s a performance that feels too detached and too opaque to make you feel the full turmoil of Lili. There’s an interesting moment when, dressed as Lili, a smitten man kisses her without permission. Lili is upset at the lack of consideration, to which the man replies, “I couldn’t chance you saying no.” That little moment highlights the challenges of women in a society that doesn’t respect their agency. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t present more scenes that explore this new dynamic that Lili will have to adjust to. Instead the move repeatedly falls back on her as Brave and Strong. As presented, Lili is more catalyst than a fleshed-out character, which is remarkable considering the movie is reportedly about her struggles. Rather, the real focus of the story seems to be Gerda, who, incidentally, is the only person on screen referred to as “the Danish girl.”

Gerda is given equal attention in the screen adaptation by Lucinda Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White), which is generous and will likely leave several viewers confused. First, Gerda is given the most complete character arc and a surprising amount of consideration for her perspective. I suppose she could be the audience’s entry point into this story, the relatable position for many audience members trying to better understand a loved one saying they were born in the wrong body. The movie presents greater empathy for Gerda’s plight than it does Lili, which is definitely unexpected and perhaps misplaced. Surely finding the courage to embrace a controversial identity that precious few will even acknowledge, let alone the bastions of contemporary medical science declaring such thinking to be signs of a degenerative brain, is a bit more of a risk than being a supportive spouse. I don’t want to mitigate Gerda’s own personal struggles dealing with the outward transformation of Einar into Lili. It’s a position that deserves deep empathy and the movie has it in spades, as we watch Gerda try to be supportive while the person she fell in love with erases himself. Vikander (Ex Machina) also kills it. Her performance is full of the breadth of emotions that I found wanting in her screen partner. Vikander’s face registers all the complicated emotions; she’s in a sense saying goodbye to her husband and a specific life they shared, and while for her it can feel like mourning, for Lili it is a rebirth. Viankder’s compassionate and nuanced performance as Gerda is the exclamation on one hell of a year for the Swedish actress.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) gives everything the proper stately appearance with his signature visual indulgences (the man loves his asymmetrical one-shots and generous head room in the camera frame). There are several landscapes or venues that look gorgeous or given a dream-like sense just from Hooper’s framing. His handling of his actors is first-rate, and there’s a comfortable sensuality to scenes between Einar and Gerda, further communicating just how enraptured each is with the other. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a bit over excited to explain all the many emotions you should be feeling, but other than that the technical aspects of The Danish Girl are pleasing to the senses and enhance the story. I just wish the screenplay gave us so much more to think about when it comes to Lili.

alicia.vikanderAs a strange aside, I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.

Tasteful to a fault, The Danish Girl is a reserved biopic that goes about its story with a sincere and earnest sense of responsibility. It wants to tell its story correctly instead of telling its story in the best-developed and executed fashion, and there is a difference. The performances are strong, though Viankder is the standout as the film’s surprising focus. Redmayne feels too timid and fragile to make Lili’s story resonate beyond common human compassion. The screenplay doesn’t place us insider her mind. Instead, we’re treated more to how Lili’s choices are impacting her supportive but anguished wife. In 1930, a mere four months after the fourth and final surgery, Lili died from complications related to the operation, lending a greater sense of tragedy (this fact is left out of the concluding text). It’s a movie that feels too distant even from itself. Everything is so reserved, so tasteful, so artfully opaque, so afraid of making the wrong step that The Danish Girl ends up being an Oscar-bait biopic that feels too hesitant and bloodless.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell directed, adapted from his stage play and stars as the sexually confused rock mega-star Hedwig. Hedwig was a boy trying to escape from the constraints of soviet occupied East Germany. His lucky ticket came in with a GI who agreed to marry Hedwig and take him out of the country with him, but Hedwig had to go under the knife and become a proper lady before their escape was to ensue. When the sex change operation is botched it leaves Hedwig with a single nub-like inch left causing gender confusion (“Six inches forward, five inches back”). Dumped by his GI Hedwig turns to song and befriends a lonely and confused boy Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). Their courtship seems to be going fine until Gnosis steals all of Hedwig’s songs and uses them for his own superstardom on MTV. Hedwig’s defense is to pack up a traveling band and to perform at various salad bars and trucker diners in the same town Gnosis travels to. It’s during these performances that Hedwig dishes about her unusual life.

Unlike most plays turned into films, Hedwig has been adapted for the medium of cinema. Animations, clever camera tricks and sing-alongs follow our story, making it an exhilarating film going experience. Hedwig is excitingly original and spilling over with passionate energy that can’t help but transfer to the audience. Mitchell proves himself a born filmmaker, but also a rock star. Many of the songs of Hedwig are quite listenable and could be found on some music channels. Hedwig is a trans hero for all of us and Mitchell delivers a fresh and resoundingly funny, sad, and technical achievement of a movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

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