Bodybuilders, many would say, are freaks: people whose mental ideal of the human body is distorted, causing them to pump iron until they look, to many of us, all but inhuman. Transsexuals are also accustomed to being treated like freaks. How hard must it be to fall into both categories at once?
Michael Del Monte’s Transformer introduces Janae Marie Kroczaleski, a trans woman who until 2015 was known to the public as Matt Kroc, an “ultimate alpha male” who set a world record for combined powerlifting. Despite feeling since childhood that he was actually a woman, Matt pursued male perfection. Following Matt through a public transition and capturing its unique set of complications, Del Monte offers a warm portrait of a thoroughly winning subject. Likely to surprise anyone expecting sensationalism, it should play well both in the trans community and with other viewers who suspect they may have already seen plenty of docs and news profiles of transitioning individuals.
In footage from early competitions, we see just what a frightening macho-man this Ypsilanti, Michigan, resident can be: Grunt-shouting and stomping around the mat, Matt is testosterone personified before hoisting unthinkable amounts of weight off the ground. He had also been a football player in school and an accomplished Marine. Later in the film, Janae will speak of the self-consciousness and insecurity behind such pursuits.
But if Matt was an artificial construct designed to get the world’s approval, it was not one to hide behind at home. Though he got married (since divorced) and fathered three children, Matt came out as trans to his boys long ago, when they were two, four and six. Now teens, the kids seem completely accepting of this unconventional life. They play video games and chat with Janae as she’s doing her makeup for a night at the club. They lift weights and dig into car engines together, talking to the camera about how much they respect their father.
Are the pronouns more problematic than usual here? In part that reflects the uncertainty plaguing Janae throughout the doc. Despite having reconciled herself to being open about her identity in the sports world (she lost Matt’s sponsorships and took some flak, but also gets a great deal of support; old friends prove surprisingly open to the change), she isn’t sure she wants to give up the option of presenting herself as a man on occasion. “I’ve started and stopped transition, like, eight times,” Janae says. That’s easy to understand, since Matt devoted his life to acquiring the muscular bulk that stands in the way of Janae’s feminine style. Switching back and forth is problematic. Coming around as the film progresses, she concludes, “At this point I can cope with being a big muscular woman more than I can cope with being a small weak guy.” She continues to lift competitively as a woman, finding others who share her predicament, or at least understand it.
Del Monte’s previous films have been sports documentaries, but he has no trouble getting into thorny psychological territory here, helping us share Janae’s ambivalence about permanently surrendering her male persona. The film is weaker when it comes to answering questions in the non-emotional realm. We get too few details about how and why Janae was outed on YouTube in 2015, an event that nudged her along her transitional path uncomfortably. And an unfortunate career development in the film’s final scenes goes completely unexplained.
Still, the insight Janae has into her own psyche, and her willingness to be vulnerable on camera, go a long way here, winning us over even if we aren’t getting all the context we might like. Like the best art in its genre, Transformer makes it very difficult to deny the humanity of a subject we’ve been trained to see as a freak.
Director-screenwriter: Michael Del Monte
Producers: Tad Munnings
Executive producers: Janae Marie Kroczaleski
Director of photography: Brian Hunt
Editor: Graham Withers
Composer: Gilad Carrol
Venue: Austin Film Festival