When it was announced that Matt Bomer would be playing a transgender woman in Anything, tempers in the LGBT community flared. Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne and other cisgender actors have been there, done that, people said; it's time for trans actresses, often confined to sassy supporting parts, to be given their shot. Moreover, casting men in these roles feeds a broader misconception that trans women are just dudes playing dress-up — and that line of thinking can lead to discriminatory measures like North Carolina's "bathroom bill."
These are strong arguments, and the film industry indeed should be pushed not just to be inclusive and authentic in what it represents, but in how it represents. (Of course, there's also the danger that a single-minded focus on inclusivity and authenticity — the idea that only certain people are qualified to tell certain stories or play certain characters — could crowd out other crucial tools in the artist's arsenal: namely, empathy and imagination. But that's another debate.) Still, the work in question here may disarm some of its skeptics.
A pleasingly quiet, small-scaled drama about love between strangers and siblings, solidarity between lonely Angelenos and the transformative power of kindness, Anything has much to recommend it. Chief among the film's charms is the pair of beautifully matched performances at its center: John Carroll Lynch as a depressed widower and Bomer as the trans sex worker he meets when he moves from Mississippi to Hollywood. Backed up by a seamless ensemble and sensitive direction by Timothy McNeil (adapting his own 2007 play for his feature directorial debut), the two leads help the film overcome some daunting clichés and contrivances. After preparing you for the worst — another story of a straight white man saved by the grace of an oppressed minority — Anything sneaks up on you with sharp stabs of humor and surprising depth of feeling.
The combo of Bomer as star and Mark Ruffalo as executive producer should raise the movie's profile on the heels of its recent Los Angeles Film Festival premiere. The still relatively novel subject matter — a potential romance between a man and a trans woman — will also draw curious viewers, especially those with an interest in queer cinema.
We first find mild-mannered Southern insurance company owner Early (Lynch) in a grief-induced daze following the death of his wife of 26 years in a car crash. After a suicide attempt, he's released to the care of his studio exec sister Laurette (Maura Tierney), who brings him back to live with her, husband Ted (Christopher Thornton) and teen son Jack (Tanner Buchanan) at their posh Brentwood home. Laurette is a well-intentioned control freak, loving but overbearing; when she tries to set her brother up with an acquaintance who also recently lost her spouse (Bonnie McNeil, breathtakingly sad in a brief appearance), Early decides it's time to find his own place.
Flush with money from the sale of his company but exceedingly frugal, he rents a small apartment in the sleazy heart of Hollywood. The monotony of evenings spent on the couch, bathrobe-clad and bourbon in hand, is broken when Early overhears an explosive lovers' quarrel between his neighbor across the hall and a male visitor. Early knocks, offering help; the neighbor declines. But the next day, she knocks back, and he opens the door to Freda, a stunning trans woman in a form-fitting red dress. She's feisty, flouncy and quick with the one-liners — in other words, at first glance, a bit of a stereotype. Ever the Southern gentleman (stuck in a schlub's body), Early invites Freda inside and soon learns there's more to her than "yass bitch" fierceness and flirty double entendres.
Their strange, restorative, gratifyingly confusing friendship evolves in fits and starts of reciprocal care-taking. Early tends to Freda when she comes home beaten up after a rough shift turning tricks on Santa Monica Boulevard. She coaxes him out of his shell by asking questions about his late wife. He lends her money and helps her break her pill habit (the latter endeavor making for an unpersuasive sequence, heavy on shrieky withdrawal theatrics). She puts concealer on his wrist scars.
Early and Freda are an odd couple — a middle-aged sad sack with sturdy values and questionable taste in sweaters palling around with a brash, glammed-up trans prostitute — but McNeil doesn't milk the contrast for easy visual punchlines or serve up deadpan compositions that call attention to the unlikeliness of it all. He also, thankfully, avoids the kind of tonal cutesiness that makes a lot of sub-Sundance (and, frankly, Sundance) indie fare so grating. Shooting in a loose, naturalistic style, McNeil plays it straight, so to speak — clearly, though never heavy-handedly, conveying what pulls these two toward one another: Freda is drawn to Early's courtliness and consideration; he's attracted to her charisma, exoticism and mercurial nature.
Anything also expands beyond the central duo, weaving a handful of other figures into its tapestry of messy L.A. lives — including Brianna (Margot Bingham) and her caddish boyfriend David (Micah Hauptman), the druggies who live downstairs from Early and Freda. These characters feel specific and touchingly human, as do Laurette, Ted and Jack. In a less thoughtful movie, the climactic scene in which Early has his sister and her family over to meet Freda would have been played for broad comedy or cringeiness, but McNeil and his actors turn it into a mini-roller-coaster of pain, pathos and humor. Tierney is particularly dazzling, refusing to sugarcoat Laurette's judginess but never letting us forget that it stems from deep sisterly concern. The exasperated, affectionate rapport between Early and Laurette is one of the film's most believable touches.
Lynch, a reliably versatile performer, can project either stomach-turning menace (Zodiac) or down-home decency (the Coens' Fargo) without breaking a sweat. Here, he plays Early as a placid man with a storm of roiling feelings right below the surface; the actor makes his character's goodness interesting and complex. And Bomer, who was decorative in the Magic Mike movies but dug deep as the closeted New York Times reporter in Ryan Murphy's The Normal Heart, gives a performance of real warmth and delicacy. Rather than play Freda as a force of nature or a collection of mannerisms — the typical default modes of actors playing trans women — Bomer renders her fully dimensional: an unpredictable tangle of impulses, by turns defensive and tender. (It's worth noting that associate producer Kylene K. Steele, a transgender woman, was a personal consultant to Bomer throughout the shoot.)
Some of the more literary dialogue betrays the film's stage origins, but McNeil has done a fine job of opening the play up and airing it out. Those efforts are boosted by original music from all-female band Spectacular Spectacular and evocative work from Moonlight lenser James Laxton, who captures a range of L.A. moods and settings, from the spooky serenity of a late-night ocean dip to the harsh noise and light of an afternoon in Hollywood.
Should there be a concerted effort to cast more trans actresses as trans women in movies and on television? Yes. In the meantime, we can still appreciate the deftness with which Anything sidesteps a multitude of other traps and pitfalls, and enjoy it for what it is: a poignant and well-told love story.
Production companies: Chaotik, ONEZERO Films, Slendro Media
Cast: John Carroll Lynch, Matt Bomer, Maura Tierney, Micah Hauptman, Margot Bingham, Melora Hardin, Tanner Buchanan, Christopher Thornton, Bonnie McNeil, Michael Boatman, Heidi Sulzman, Gia Ryan, Roxy Wood
Writer-director: Timothy McNeil
Producers: Louise Runge, Ofrit Peres, Micah Hauptman
Executive producers: Mark Ruffalo, Scott Wexler, Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve
Director of photography: James Laxton
Editors: Geraud Brisson, Andy Keir
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Original music: Spectacular Spectacular
Casting: Rich Delia
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Muse)