'Man Made': Film Review

man made
A sensitive snapshot of four lives in transition.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary following four trans bodybuilders premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival.

An affecting portrait of four transgender men as they prepare for a bodybuilding competition, T Cooper's Man Made pushes beyond easy pieties to look at the various challenges faced by the men as well as their partners. Cooper often swings his camera around for a selfie, and he clearly forged an intimate rapport with his subjects, who address him frequently. Though body-building is what unites the participants, it recedes as a central aspect of the drama during the middle stretch until a traditional sports-movie climax, with body-sculpting providing a fitting vehicle for the film's themes of self-actualization and acceptance. Executive produced by Téa Leoni, the pic nabbed a jury award for best documentary feature at the Atlanta Film Fest.

We're introduced first to Dominic, a confident young rapper from St. Paul about to undergo a double mastectomy with the support of fiancé Thea. The music career will have to wait; he's a lot less unusual as a guy rapping than as a girl, Dominic admits. Cooper follows him in surgery and the aftermath, as well as on a road trip to meet the biological mother who gave him up for adoption (tracked down via Facebook, whose beleaguered PR reps should get in touch with the filmmakers pronto).

Less confident is Mason, a serious gym-junkie in Cleveland with an adoring wife and equally adoring mother-in-law, who lives next door. The mother-in-law's only complaint is Mason's strict regimen of chicken breast and asparagus, which seems a bit "obsessive." He admits to thoughts of suicide, and Cooper gradually unravels his history, including a tearful appearance in Ellen DeGeneres' 2000 HBO special and a suicide attempt that ended with his own mother beating him.

Meanwhile, Atlanta native Rese has been kicked out of home by his mother, who is looking after De'montae, the 5-year-old son to whom he gave birth. Rese is homeless until he moves in with his grandparents, and eventually he settles in Baltimore with a new partner, also trans, where he's dismayed by a wave of trans killings. The victims, the film points out, are often shot after admitting their trans status to men trying to pick them up.

Last and perhaps most touching, chronicling as it does the breakdown of a loving relationship, is the story of Kennie, a director at the fitness center of a small Arkansas university. Throwing a "boys tea party" for friends and family to mark the beginning of hormone treatment, Kennie's girlfriend D.J. notes it's going to be "so gendered it's gonna make you sick." But her good humor is shaded by ambivalence: A lesbian, D.J. is supportive of Kennie's transition but worried about her own queer identity. Her sex drive flatlines as Kennie's spikes, and the film captures, without melodrama, the growing awareness of an unbridgeable divide.

The humanity granted to each of the partners and their families reps one of the film's most consistent strengths. Mason's wife has never seen him completely naked, but is willing to accept that as the price of his companionship, after earlier ending it. Kennie's twin brother, for his part, admits to hesitation about telling his kids about his sister-turned-brother: "I don't want to give them permission to go and explore. But why can't they explore?" Confusion over pronouns is everywhere, but never chided.

The countdown to Trans Fitcon clearly occupies some participants more than others. Dominic seems to be having too good a time to be pumping iron, while Mason is laser-focused. When they all finally convene, the film skitters briefly sideways to take in the lives and families of other competitors, including eventual champ Tommy, a heavyweight who works as a trainer in South Beach, Florida, and Rufio, whose mohawk seems inspired by his namesake — and who admits he didn't see Mason coming: "He looks pretty balls." The vagaries of competing in a G-string are amusingly canvassed ("packers," fake penises to fill out the fabric, are the order of the day) but never mocked, and the credits squarely locate the film's heroes as the heirs to Steve Reeves and other self-imagined pioneers.

Production companies: Roadside Entertainment, Man Made Films
Director-cinematographer-producer: T Cooper
Screenwriters: T Cooper, Allison Glock
Co-producers: Charlene Fisk, Lauren Griswold
Executive producers: Téa Leoni, John Hirsch, Ron Yassen
Editor: Charlene Fisk
Music: Nick Takénobu Ogawa
: Derek Kigongo, Paradigm Talent Agency

99 minutes