52 Tuesdays: Sundance Review

52 Tuesdays Sundance Film Still - H 2014

52 Tuesdays Sundance Film Still - H 2014

A thoughtful drama about a mother and daughter whose connection is tested as they both go through intense changes.

A Sundance award winner for directing, Australian newcomer Sophie Hyde’s film concerns a 16-year-old girl’s efforts to define herself, triggered by her mother's gender transition.

Sophie Hyde’s debut, 52 Tuesdays, is a fictional story with the textured authenticity of a docudrama, following a teenage girl’s struggle to adjust as her mother embarks upon a female-to-male gender transition. Taking her cue from the title, the Australian director shot chronologically on that one day each week for a year, giving her cast script sections only a week at a time that pertained strictly to their characters. While some of the non-professional actors are a little stiff, cramping the film’s emotional breadth, the sensitively observed drama is distinguished by its structurally adventurous approach and the intimacy of its storytelling.

The events depicted in Matthew Cormack’s screenplay, based on Cormack and Hyde’s story, are frequently filtered through video shot by the characters, with that technology adding to the cinema verite feel.

Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) starts a video diary after learning that her lesbian mother, Jane (Del Herbert-Jane), is beginning the long and psychologically taxing process of becoming a transgender man, adopting the name James. Needing life to be simplified during this transition, James sends Billie to live with his father, Tom (Beau Travis Williams), for a year, agreeing that they will meet once a week during set hours after school on Tuesdays. Billie’s confusion is increased by the hurt she feels at being the last to know; she’s way behind easygoing Tom and her uncle Harry (Mario Spate), who also lives with James and is more like a flaky big brother to Billie.

Having loved Jane unconditionally, Billie is less consistent in her feelings toward James. This compels her to seek out the company of two older schoolmates, Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), who find room for Billie and her camera in their makeout sessions. Chopping off her hair into an androgynous pixie cut, Billie shyly begins exploring her own sexual identity, acting on her attraction to both of them. But while her video inquiry yields unguarded access to Josh and especially Jasmine, Billie reveals little about herself, inviting charges of exploitation and insensitivity, and causing tension in the romantic triangle.

James also withholds information from his daughter, keeping quiet about a relationship with work colleague Lisa (Danica Moors). But the more worrying challenge is his body’s rejection of testosterone, prompting depression and slowing down his physical transformation.

These are complicated issues, dealt with for the most part with intelligent restraint. For instance, Cormack’s screenplay waits until more than an hour into the film to have James open up to Lisa about the gradual path of self-discovery that led him to that point. He describes being a woman dressed up for the first time in male clothes and recognizing herself as “a beautiful man.” It’s perhaps the film’s most affecting scene.

Even if they risk tipping over into didacticism, James’ video recordings of meetings with other transgender people during a trip to San Francisco help contextualize the character’s experience, as does Billie’s web research into other children of transgender parents.

However, Hyde arguably overstates her themes of sexual fluidity and the rejection of strict binary gender definitions by having Billie butch up her look, putting Harry (an irritating character given to spouting on-the-nose dialogue) in touch with his feminine side, and even giving his young daughter, Frida (Audrey Mason-Hyde), a tomboyish style. Illustrating how much can happen in a year by punctuating each week’s meetings with a flash of world events – the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, a massive glacier split – also seems a tad obvious.

A slight imbalance in the way the characters are drawn inhibits the drama’s impact. James has held off on his transition for as long as possible, meaning it’s time to put his own needs first. Herbert-Jane, a non-gender-conforming individual who was a diversity consultant on the film before being cast, brings quiet depth to the role. It feels bracingly honest that James’ love for Billie doesn’t exclude frustration and even impatience with her difficult behavior.

But Cobham-Hervey, whose experience is in physical theater and circus, keeps Billie at a distance from the audience. Selfish and emotionally immature even by the standards of her age, she too rarely transmits genuine vulnerability. Josh and Jasmine are less walled-off, making their characters easier to like. The same goes for Tom, though the American-scooter-riding chef dad seems an impossibly perfect specimen of the evolved, mellow male.

Full of touching moments even if its emotional rewards remain somewhat muted, 52 Tuesdays feels highly personal and is never less than absorbing or sincere in its depiction of a non-traditional family navigating difficult changes.

Production: Closer Productions, in association with Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide Film Festival

Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane, Mario Spate, Beau Travis Williams, Imogen Archer, Sam Althuizen, Danica Moors, Audrey Mason-Hyde

Director: Sophie Hyde

Screenwriter: Matthew Cormack

Producers: Bryan Mason, Matthew Cormack, Rebecca Summerton, Sophie Hyde

Director of photography-editor: Bryan Mason

Production designer: Sophie Hyde

Costume designer: Stephanie Lyall

Music: Benjamin Speed

Sales: Visit Films

No rating, 114 minutes