'Changing the Game': Film Review | Outfest 2019

Courtesy SUPERFILMS!
A smart, poignant tribute to young athletes changing the rules.

The documentary focuses on three transgender high-school athletes from different parts of the country as they battle prejudice on and off the playing field.

Changing the Game, the Audience Award-winning documentary at this year’s Outfest, is a stirring, sharply crafted film about teen transgender athletes. Marked by a thoughtful, non-dogmatic point of view and by the presence of several engaging characters, the pic should reach beyond LGBTQ film festivals to become part of the larger social conversation about these timely and pertinent issues.

Michael Barnett, who has directed other documentaries, wisely chose to focus the film on three athletes in different parts of the country. Mack Beggs is a wrestler in Texas; Sarah Rose Huckman is a skier in New Hampshire; and Andraya Yearwood is a track and field athlete in Connecticut. Although a few other trans athletes appear in Changing the Game, the focus is on these three and their families. The film gives some attention to their early struggles to change their gender identities, but the main focus is on their challenges on the playing fields, and here the doc discovers some unexpected conflicts.

For example, in the conservative state of Texas, Mack is required to compete on the team that corresponds to his gender identity at birth. This means that he is assigned to the girls’ wrestling team, where he consistently wins. Understandably, parents of the girls against whom he is competing are furious with this arrangement, feeling that he has an unfair advantage against their daughters. They are never asked whether they favor more enlightened policies regarding transgender teens, but one suspects that many of them hold more conservative, less enlightened views, which means that self-interest clashes with political conviction.

On the other hand, there are similar problems in the state of Connecticut, which permits young people to compete on the team that corresponds with their chosen gender identity. Andraya, who is black, competes on the girls’ track team, but there are parents and other students who feel she has an unfair advantage because of her biological history. This honesty about the issues suggests that the questions are indeed complicated and are unlikely to prove satisfying to everyone in these communities.

Beyond these provocative issues of sexual politics, the film etches full-blooded portraits of the young athletes and their families. Mack’s family is especially intriguing. He was raised by his grandparents, and if these representatives of an older generation once had problems accepting the gender transformation of their grandson, they have become unquestioned allies. His grandmother in particular is a strong supporter, and she proves to be a fascinating character — a Southern Baptist and a rifle-toting deputy sheriff who dispels quite a few stereotypes of her own as she stands as a fierce advocate for Mack.

Sarah’s parents are also fervent supporters as they join her at a community meeting in New Hampshire that is struggling with the issue of equal rights for transgender teenagers. In Connecticut, Andraya has the support of her track coach, despite the hostility of some of the families in the community.

Changing the Game is beautifully crafted, with strong visual evocations of the different locales that these young athletes inhabit. The editing is also sharp, so that we rarely feel we are spending too much time with one set of characters. The ending seems somewhat hopeful, as Mack is finally able to compete on a male wrestling team when he reaches college. But the film recognizes that policies of the Trump administration (mentioned only briefly in passing) have reverberations in the lives of many ordinary Americans living outside major urban centers.

Director: Michael Barnett
Screenwriters: Michael Barnett, Amanda C. Griffin, Michael Mahaffie
Producers: Clare Tucker, Alex Schmider
Executive producers: Carlos Cusco, Jeffrey Ellermeyer, Andrew Davies Gans, Emerson Machtus, Chris Mosier, Allen Orr, Jeffrey Pechter
Directors of photography: Michael Barnett, Turner Jumonville
Editors: Amanda C. Griffin, Michael Mahaffie
Music: Tyler Strickland
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles

90 minutes