In the gentle and absorbing HBO documentary Transhood, director Sharon Liese conducts a microcosmic kind of longitudinal study on childhood gender transition. Filmed cinema verité-style over five years, starting in 2015, Transhood follows four Kansas City families in various stages of this conversely agonizing and rewarding process. Offering no narration, expert talking heads or text interstitials, Liese forgoes contextualizing the culture wars and instead lets her subjects speak for themselves. Their pathos, however, doesn’t always localize where you’d expect.
These kids’ frustrations range from gender dysphoria to celebrity fatigue to being outed by others before they were ready to do it on their own — cumbersome ordeals even many adults wouldn’t be able to shoulder. Yet, we see these young people muster prodigious strength facing a world that often denies them their identities. Their feelings remain potent and tangible throughout: After all, kids are kids, no matter their upheavals. They still battle first breakups and unwanted step-parents like anyone else. It’s the parents here I’m more worried about.
Throughout Transhood, we watch moms and dads struggle with and also support their children’s transitions. (Of course, completely disobliging parents likely wouldn’t let their child explore gender diversity at all, let alone allow a camera crew to record it for the whole world to see.) Their emotional processing even feels, at times, more compelling than their children’s, perhaps because Liese’s team edits the film around the parents’ rather explosive confessions. These caregivers’ magnetism remains inverse to the age of their offspring: The younger the subject, the more important the parents’ narrative. The older the subject, the more they’re able to convey personal agency without parental interpretation.
We meet redheaded charmer Leena at age 15, just four years after the start of her social transition. Slinky, fashionable and self-involved, Leena is an endearingly average teenage girl. With meticulously manicured talons and a glossy copper mane flowing down her back, she dreams of becoming a runway model. However, unlike most teens who may lazily envisage a life of shallow glamour, Leena studies up on cosmetology, catwalk techniques and trends in the fashion industry. Her parents and grandmother are accepting and compassionate.
We’re socialized to believe vanity is a harmful, even toxic, personality trait, but vanity can be a lifeline for marginalized people, helping to buoy self-confidence and the projection of power. Leena’s ambition speaks to that assuredness, even as her physiological dysphoria continues to smother her. “Oh my god, so many results already!” she jokes, filming herself taking her first hormone pills. Her light-heartedness initially masks her overwhelming sense of corporeal imprisonment.
The younger subjects — pubescent Jay, elementary schooler Avery and preschool-aged Phoenix — are developmentally less self-possessed than teenage Leena, so Liese (and the audience) must instead rely on their parents to articulate their children’s emotional states. Moody Jay, who began filming at age 12, is being raised by a struggling single mom while enjoying puppy love with a girlfriend who has no idea he’s trans. Sarcastic seven-year-old Avery, via her mother’s political activism, soon becomes a literal poster child for trans rights. And the parents of spirited four-year-old Phoenix believe their child is gender nonbinary due to their preferred play styles and self-referral as a “girl-boy.”
While Leena commands your attention from the moment she’s on screen, it’s the parents of the other three children who nearly steal the film as they candidly delve into the complications of raising trans children in a culture that invalidates their kids’ humanity. They each allude to the pain of losing friends, relatives and even their own parents. Some have been called child abusers. But, as one states, “I’d rather have a healthy son than a suicidal daughter.”
We watch Jay’s mom burst into tears during her son’s doctor’s appointment, panicking over the astronomical costs of his transition care. All the while poor Jay comforts her, no doubt feeling some semblance of guilt over something that is not at all his fault. You continue to detect whiffs of their codependence throughout the film.
Meanwhile, as Avery’s mother dives into national community organizing, her young daughter’s fame soars and soon the girl is authoring children’s books, appearing on magazine covers and becoming a locus of public disgust. When her mom tries to wheedle her into appearing at yet another event, the little girl finally lashes out: “I just don’t even wanna have a book. I’ve done too much in this world. It’s ruined my life and now everyone in this world is going to know. If I sell my book it’s gonna go in the news, along with me, for like the fiftieth time at this point and it’s just making my life worse.” Yowsers.
Still, by far the most compelling family is Phoenix’s. Over five years of filming, the child’s young and hippie-ish parents divorce, leading their mom to cease homeschooling and move in with her more conventional parents. Before the divorce, the family is seen joyfully encouraging toddler Phoenix to publicly declare their gender at the pulpit of a local LGBTQ-friendly church. Much later, we witness the kid’s regretful mom slowly harden to the idea that her child was ever nonconforming at all, blaming her ex’s previous influence as Phoenix starts to assume a more masculine presentation. Her sobering interviews at the tail-end of filming will genuinely leave you more interested in learning the details of her personal biography than in studying the early gender journey of her middle child.
Directed by: Sharon Liese
Premieres: Thursday, November 12 (HBO Max)