'Game Face': Film Review

Game Face Still - H 2015
Rolando De La Fuente

Game Face Still - H 2015

As engaging, thoughtful and inspiring as its subjects.

A timely documentary focuses on sports as a crucial frontier in LGBT rights.

As anti-LGBT barriers and biases continue to crumble, the documentary Game Face couldn’t be more attuned to the cultural moment. Belgian director Michiel Thomas’ first feature-length work is an affecting reminder that, shifting mainstream perceptions notwithstanding, coming out as gay or transgender requires courage, especially in the realm of sports. His intimate profile of two American athletes — one professional, one aspiring; one a transgender woman, the other a gay man — illuminates their day-to-day struggles, both emotional and career-based.

Transgender mixed-martial-arts fighter Fallon Fox and basketball hopeful Terrence Clemens represent very different experiences, not just within the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender but in terms of age, accomplishments and public exposure. The film captures Fox in the painful media glare of being outed just as her MMA star is rising and follows the closeted Clemens to college, where he wrestles privately with the growing need to be honest about who he is.

Traveling the globe’s LGBTQ-themed festivals, the inspiring doc has earned a number of audience awards, including one at Toronto’s Inside Out. Early-July dates are lined up for the Rio Festival Gay de Cinema and QFlixPhiladelphia, with a Los Angeles premiere scheduled for July 15 at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre.

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Thomas, who shared cinematography and editing duties, has made a film that’s as kinetic as it is thoughtful. He’s alert not just to his subjects’ behind-the-scenes anguish but to their athletic talents and competitive drive as well. Team dynamics and face-off suspense are integral to the stories he tells.

For Fox, the MMA cage where she always has shone is transformed into a new kind of proving ground, a place where she’s greeted with boos after her transgender status becomes public knowledge. One opponent, Allanna Jones, taunts her with the Aerosmith song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” Another, Ashlee Evans-Smith, offers tearful words of respect and affection after their bout — then publicly calls for a separate transgender division for fighters.

Fox’s coaches, who initially discouraged her from coming out, become her chief supporters, along with her teenage daughter and friends like Kye Allums, the first openly trans NCAA basketball player. Clemens, too, finds a friend and mentor in a well-known sports figure: Watching the generally positive media reaction to the NBA’s Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete to play in a major sport, he contacts Collins and gets a personal response. Thomas follows the two on a hike in Los Angeles — both men’s hometown — as Collins speaks encouragingly about personal integrity in the face of haters and the importance of humor.

Clemens’ trepidation about coming out is, in part, rooted in the ostracism he suffered after high-school friends and teammates found out that he was gay. When a basketball scholarship takes the city boy to an Oklahoma town with a population of 12,000, coming out seems like the last thing he should do. But one of the film’s most heartening paradoxes is the loving acceptance Clemens finds amid God-fearing Middle Americans.

As an outsider viewing various U.S. cultural divides, director Thomas brings a dispassionate slant to many of the situations he records, even while he’s clearly championing LGBT athletes. He includes persuasive testimony of doctors who deny claims that Fox has a physical advantage over biologically female opponents. But as to the potential long-range impact, in all its complexities, on organized sports that have been long categorized by gender, he shows no particular interest. Rooting for inclusiveness, his chief concern is the personal experiences of his two subjects.

For Fox’s part, while many trainers, rivals and fans welcome her participation in MMA, many still grapple with the very concept — sometimes in ugly and hurtful ways. The high-profile Ultimate Fighting Championship hasn’t offered her a deal, despite her strong record. Though the timing of her full disclosure wasn’t of her choosing, the film shows her embracing the role of advocate for LGBTQ people, stepping into the forefront of an ongoing battle while enjoying the loving support of her daughter and girlfriend.

And while things might seem simpler for gay athletes than for transgender competitors, Thomas offers eye-opening evidence to the contrary. A friend of Clemens recalls that a kiss shared with his boyfriend cost him his Delaware State football scholarship. Knowing that such intolerance persists makes Clemens’ eventual coming out — a hopeful message to his contemporaries, recorded for posterity — all the more moving.

With: Fallon Fox, Terrence Clemens, Jason Collins, Kye Allums, Wade Davis, Chris Mosier
Director: Michiel Thomas
Producer: Mark Schoen
Executive producers: Yuhei Ogawa, Michiel Thomas
Directors of photography: Brandon Musselman, Michiel Thomas, Bobby Lewis
Editors: Yuhei Ogawa, David Chang, Michiel Thomas
Composers: Michael Reola, Brian Bates
No rating, 95 minutes