In an old, cobweb-filled antique shop, the camera slowly pans up an old, cracked and unpolished mirror. It's not really much to look at, but you're inexplicably drawn to it. And in that broken, worn out mirror, you see a true reflection of yourself, of who you are and what you hold dear. Of your beliefs and feelings about your fellow humans. Of what you believe and what matters to you.
You might not like what you see. I still don't know if I did.
Boy Meets Girl
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Release Date: February 6th, 2015 (NYC)
My business card is classy. It's the kind of thing you might see in American Psycho, except on less sumptuous cardstock. It says:
Writer | Editor | Critic | Filmmaker
That is how I think of myself and how I present myself. Some days I'm more of a filmmaker. Right now I'm more of a critic. Writer/Editor is a bit vaguer but probably more marketable. What matters here, though, is "critic" (and, to a lesser extent, editor). As a critic, I have some sort of duty to critique a film, to write compelling criticism. As Reviews Editor of Flixist, I have a duty to uphold the words codified in the Review Guide that I wrote. But while I watched Boy Meets Girl as a critic, I experienced it as a human, and my experience as a human radically differed from my experience as a critic.
The highest score I've given to a film was my ludicrously high 97 given to The Raid 2. But that review was tempered by an acknowledgement that the film's narrative beyond its action was flawed. Having just seen it for a third time, the narrative drags even more than I remembered. But the film deserves that score. It changed the game, raised the bar. But acknowledging the potentially controversial nature of this decision to rate a film that is fundamentally flawed so highly, I made a YouTube video about it. It has over 8,000 views. 138 of the 139 people who decided to take a stance liked it. That one person who didn't like it is a bad person. Boy Meets Girl's main character has a YouTube channel and posts fashion videos weekly. Her channel has 1100 subscribers. I wouldn't watch her videos if I came across them on YouTube. They're underproduced (much like the film they're portrayed in). For a video about fashion, it's a problem that they're really not much to look at. My video's not much better, though I have to admit to liking my background painting. I still have that painting. Maybe I'll make a video about this review. (As if the next several thousand words (buckle in, y'all) aren't more than enough. (They're not.))
"So why am you talking about all of this?!" I'm sure you're thinking that by now. "What the heck does this have to do with Boy Meets Girl? Get to the damn point already!" That's fair enough, but bear with me. This review is going to be weird, because of the thing I discussed two paragraphs ago. I had two radically different reactions to this film, both valid in their own way, and as such this review is not really a criticism so much as a philosophical exploration of what this film is, what it needed to be, and whether or not it matters that it's a cracked mirror and not something pristine. As such, it will (after a few more thoughts) be structured as a kind of discussion with myself, between my critical, logical side that spent the 108 minutes deconstructing each piece of dialogue, edit, camera movement, lighting choice, etc. and my human, emotional side.
Alec the Critic is going to write in bold. Alec the Human will not. Spoiler: The human side ultimately prevails. It is probably worth mentioning here that all critics are put in this same position now and again, and implying that critics are cold and calculating is ludicrous. The chasm between feelings may not often be wide enough to cause some kind of existential crisis, but what makes a critic interesting is the way they play that line between emotional and logical reactions. Purely emotional reactions can fail to examine what makes a film work and purely logical reactions don't give the reader anything to grab onto. There are exceptions of course, but by and large, good criticism falls somewhere in the middle.
As I walked out of the theater, someone said, "This film is important." I don't think he liked it. There was an implied "but..." there. He just repeated that sentence and that was it.
"This film is important."
It is important.
Last year, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club. It was a brilliant performance, but I didn't know that Jared Leto was playing a transgender character. In retrospect, that makes a whole lot of sense, but my vision of his performance was colored by the fact that I'd seen more than a few people refer to him as a transvestite. It was only in retrospect that I realized that what they were saying was ignorant and etc. When people complained that they hadn't cast an actual transgender person in that role, it was a valid point not just because... ya know, duh, but because it would have removed that confusion. Everyone knows who Jared Leto is. Everyone knows Jared Leto is dude. And even if his performance as a transgender woman is spectacular, it's still a performance by a dude when it could have (perhaps should have) not been.
Michelle Henley was born a man. In Boy Meets Girl, she plays a character who was also born a man. She makes a hilarious joke (seen in the trailer) about it: Some old women are complaining about their experiences at the local high school. "I was fat." "I had terrible acne." Ricky retorts, "And I was a boy... so that sucked." It's a great moment. The entire audience laughed, myself included. It's the biggest laugh in a film that has a few good ones. I'm sorry I ruined that, but the trailer ruined it first. But what's important isn't that joke. It's the context of that joke. Ricky is at a fancy party at a beautiful estate. The people there are posh, probably all Republicans. Some of them definitely are, which we know because the film shows them talking about Democratic policies bankrupting the country and this/that/the other thing. It's all very stereotypical, but that doesn't matter.
What matters is that Ricky makes that joke, and the response isn't revulsion but laughter (and some confusion). For the most part, people accept Ricky for who she is. Even the people who don't like Ricky as a concept do like Ricky as a person and can see past the whole gender thing. Only two people in the entire film really raise any serious objections to it, and one of them is a hypocrite of the highest order. The other one makes a speech that is among the most real and poignant in the entire film. But it's not filled with hate, or even really disgust. It's cutting, but it's oddly tempered. This is the South. If we're going with stereotypes here, where's the hate? (This is important, and I will talk about it at even more length later on.)
Boy Meets Girl was shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio, commonly referred to as "Flat" (as opposed to the 2.XX:1 "Scope" format). Many indie movies are shot that way. Documentaries are too. Paul Thomas Anderson shot his last two movies Flat. It happens. But it's rare. When people think Cinematic, one of the things they think of is that ultra widescreen. Boy Meets Girl does not look cinematic. It doesn't "look" like a movie.
Here's an experiment you can try: Take a 16:9 image and simply chop off the top and bottom. Make a 1920x1080 image 1920x816 (or even 1920x800). Crop it or just add black bars. Instantly, the image will look more cinematic. It's fascinating, but we really do associate that with the real cinematic look. But of course, Boy Meets Girl doesn't need to "look" like a movie. The visuals exist to push the story forward and do nothing more. In that sense, they are serviceable at best, but they work.
Be that as it may, it creates a rift when the characters talk like they're in a movie. Nobody in Boy Meets Girl ever really sounds like a person. They have the perfect, hyperrealistic responses you'd expect from a screenplay that has been given serious thought and revision. It's what you expect... from a movie. But because the characters in Boy Meets Girl talk like they're in a movie that doesn't really look like a movie, there's a level of dissonance. It's harder to suspend the disbelief.
I can't argue with myself here, and the weakest thing about Boy Meets Girl is probably its script. A movie that's ostensibly about humans needs to have characters who sound like humans. And on that level, the movie fails. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking when it comes time for them to give their big speeches, and nothing is really left for interpretation. "This is how the world is," they say, but that's only half true. I was disconnected from the dialogue, because the characters seemed disconnected from what they were saying. That crushed me, because I wanted to believe in these characters at all times. There were times when I did, probably more often than not, but even some of the key dramatic moments fall flat because they feel like plot mechanisms rather than honest human revelations.
But it's also that these characters are basically perfect. They're not flawed. I don't need Ricky to be an anti-hero, but when the worst thing any given character has done is have sex at boarding school and then pretend to be a virgin... come on, y'all. And then she cheats on her fiance, but even that is "justified" in the dialogue and ultimately doesn't really affect anyone's life. Everything works out in the end. For everyone. That isn't how life works. It's how life should work. It would be amazing if every transgender boy or girl in the South had loving friends and family. If they were able to overcome prejudice and do what they love. But it's hard to believe. So, so hard.
But you know what? That's why we have Boys Don't Cry. That's why we have a film where things go horribly wrong, that show a more realistic side to things (though even that film is somewhat idealized from the original story, which is even worse). Boy Meets Girl doesn't owe the audience the reality of prejudice and hatred. The tiny little nuggets, to those who see them as symptomatic of society rather than one-off instances of transphobic characters (one of whom isn't actually transphobic, despite appearances to the contrary... a plot twist that kind of undermines its effectiveness. That hatred that the character initially spews is accurate. I've heard people say those things, seen them write those things on anonymous chat boards. Hell, when I first learned about transgender people (I was in high school), I felt some of those same things. I've grown up since then, at least a little bit. (I hope I have, anyhow.)
Plus, the way that character (who looks annoyingly like Zayn from One Direction) fits into the other romantic subplots is too neat and tidy, as is the ultimate result of all of the various romantic threads.
True, but shut up. It's my turn now.
That's enough raining on Boy Meets Girl's parade. It's finally time to talk about the metaphorical mirror in the introduction, and the things that affected me. And this is going to require me to admit to something that's really weird and probably says something about me, though I don't have any idea what that might be: I can't watch characters kiss onscreen. Whenever lips lock, I avert my eyes. It's been that way for the better part of a decade. I don't know what started it or where it came from, but it bothers me. I feel uncomfortable watching it. Which made me extremely uncomfortable during Boy Meets Girl, because there is a lot of kissing in that movie. And the things that happen around that kissing are the reasons this film succeeds despite each and every flaw.
Because the moments where this film is human and real are in its discussions about sex. How many romance movies have featured two characters kissing and then discussing sexual histories in order to clarify that they've used protection. That's a legitimate concern, and a legitimate conversation. It's something that's necessary... but it's also exactly the sort of thing films gloss over. In the heat of the moment, passion takes over and there's nothing more to it. Kiss. Sex. BOOM.
We never see the sex. We do see the moments before (and the moments after). We see the awkward movements and dialogue that are ever-so-crucial. We get Ricky as she asks her partner whether they're okay with what they're doing, whether they understand the implications of going down that road. (Though here, again, this is undermined by the nearly utopian vision where a well-connected conservative leader does not go after a transgender woman (pre-sexual reassignment surgery, I might add) who slept with his daughter (thus, as far as anyone knows, taking her virginity). Bullshit. Absolute fucking malarkey.) But I digress...
That Boy Meets Girl is willing to have frank discussions about what defines sex (in conversations outside of sexual contexts) matters. Those are rare. Less rare in indie film, but rare enough that it merits consideration. But the fact is that by sheer virtue of having a female transgender character (really, the pre-op thing is vital, and takes center stage in a climactic moment that reminded me just a little bit too much of the ending of Sleepaway Camp (minus the severed head)) at the center of these conversations, one who is experimenting with her own sexuality throughout the film, it propels itself far beyond its glaring technical problems and becomes something that is truly affecting. It's a sexual coming of age tale that has probably never been told quite like this. There have been dozens (hundreds) of movies about straight couples in these sorts of positions, and even a few about gay ones (the devastating and incredible Blue is the Warmest Color comes to mind), but transgender? Nah. That's something else. But it's something necessary.
Bruce Jenner, of the famous (and infamous) Kardashian household, just came out as transgender. He (not for much longer) is beginning a transition into womanhood. That public spotlight will matter. It will get people talking. It will put issues that are kept quiet out in front of everyone. That's what reality TV does best. It stirs up controversy and gets people talking. This will make people talk and make people think.
Boy Meets Girl comes at a perfect time to stay one step ahead of that conversation. It lets people like me (and probably you too) into an experience that it's nearly impossible to imagine. I can't conceive of looking down and thinking, "No. That's not right." It's something I've wrestled with for a long, long time. It really is, and I've done that with varying degrees of sensitivity to the people who do have that experience. I can be rough and abrasive (no shit, right?) and there will probably be more than a few people I met in college who hear that I'm writing about transgender issues and cringe.
They'll be right to.
I can't say I've exactly turned over a new leaf and I'm going marching in the streets tomorrow, but I think I just understand it better now. There was something missing, some vital piece of the puzzle that I just hadn't locked into place. I saw my own prejudices in the mirror. During some of the more intimate scenes, I felt less comfortable than I think I would have if Michelle Hendley were not biologically male (though I would have been uncomfortable either way). I felt that little bit extra, and I was mad at myself. How dare I judge this on an emotional level? This wasn't something that I could objectively point to and say, "Nope, wrong!" the way people could in response to Blue is the Warmest Color's awkward and unrealistic sex scenes. I wish I could hide behind that. It would make me feel better about my visceral reaction, but I couldn't and can't. I need to own it, understand it, and be better for it. I need to get over myself.
Laverne Cox's excellent performance in Orange is the New Black did a lot to give a powerful voice to a transgender character, but Ricky is in such a different position. Ricky is still a kid. She wants to go to college in New York. That's her dream, and she waits for the letter from the Fashion Institute each and every day. Ricky doesn't have a vagina. Sophia gives an in-depth explanation of how vaginas work (she would know); Ricky has to ask her best friend for advice on getting a girl "wet" and asking how vaginal sex compares to anal, her only point of comparison. That's a different voice, and it's one we need. And even if Michelle Hendley's performance occasionally dips into the melodramatic, it all comes from an honest place that makes her fascinating to watch. In the end, she is the only character who truly feels real. And if Boy Meets Girl had to do anything, it was get that right. It had to make Ricky human, someone who anybody could empathize with.
I can complain all day about this or that, but to what end? What am I trying to prove by focusing on the bad instead of celebrating the good? This film made me think about my own feelings more than any film in recent memory. It showed me my own prejudices, but it didn't judge me for them. At least, not explicitly. And so now I have things to think about, and they're things I'll continue to think about.
Everybody should see Boy Meets Girl. It should be required viewing in every high school sex ed class in the country. I urge you to see it. To tell your friends and family and vague social media connections. Get the word out, because even if they don't see Boy Meets Girl, they should know about it. They should know that it exists, because the fact that it exists matters too. It marks a turning point. One can only hope that the future is brighter.
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