'Room to Grow': Film Review | Outfest 2018

Coming-out stories with a few tender surprises.

Gay and trans kids speak frankly about frustrations and satisfactions in this Outfest doc.

An intriguing cast of teenage characters enlivens the Outfest documentary Room to Grow. Docs about LGBTQ kids are nothing new, and yet directors Matt Alber and Jon Garcia have managed to find fresh, compelling stories to tell in this rousing and eye-opening film. Most of these kids are going through challenges in their adolescent years, though these challenges aren’t always predictable. A couple of trans kids face special obstacles, but they turn out to have surprising resilience. This affecting film will appear on the gay streaming service Revry, but also should generate discussion after a theatrical release.

The focus here is on seven kids in different parts of the country. They hail from different ethnic backgrounds, and one of the fascinating elements in the doc is that they must deal with racial as well as sexual or gender issues. One African-American girl, Maia, seems to feel more troubled by her racial isolation than by her sexual orientation. She mentions at one point that she has to contend with racism in the LGBT community as well as homophobia in the black community.  Another young woman, Ayden, is part Native American, and she also struggles to integrate her ethnic and her sexual identity.

Rylee is a girl who is transitioning to become a boy, and he and his parents have to fight with insurance companies that do not want to cover the cost of the surgeries. In addition, Rylee's dream of joining the military is frustrated by the current administration, so he has to consider a career as a firefighter instead. One of the most engaging characters is a younger boy named Keltin, who has not yet decided on his gender identity. When asked if he identifies more as a boy or girl, he says he thinks of himself as “more boy but a little bit girl.” He simply enjoys wearing dresses, and although his mother (who appears on camera) is supportive, his father has been unable to accept this cross-dressing.

Even when parental rejection is not the issue, these kids face discrimination from the larger community. Perhaps the most moving section in the doc focuses on a 13-year-old girl, Savannah, who tried to make a statement to her Mormon church group about her lesbian inclinations. But the church leaders turned off her microphone during the middle of her testimony and asked her to sit down. The filmmakers were present to capture this public humiliation, and Savannah’s feeling of rejection is poignantly caught. In one of the film’s saddest and yet most triumphant moments, Savannah’s mother reports that she left the Mormon church because of what happened to her daughter. The affirmation of parental support has to be balanced against the bleakness of community rejection.

Directors Alber and Garcia, who also acted as cinematographers, capture the different locales with finesse. They obviously developed rapport with both the kids and their families, and that trust is warranted by the empathy they demonstrate throughout this humane document. All but the most intolerant members of our society will have some of their assumptions shaken by these forthright and intelligent kids.

Directors-directors of photography: Matt Alber, Jon Garcia
Executive producers: Damian Palliccione, Chris Rodriguez, Alia J. Daniels, LaShawn McGhee, Tom Nichols, Dan Chadburn, Rodney Moore, Eddie Passadore
Editor: Christopher J. Stephens
Music: Deep Dark Blue
Music supervisor: Joe Guthrie

86 minutes