Boy Meets Girl feels very much like a traditional coming-of-age romantic comedy. It follows the familiar tropes and story beats to a tee, everything from youngsters on the precipice of adulthood questioning their uncertain future, to best friends who everyone mistakes for a couple, to a change in the dynamic once a third party is introduced, to jealousy, to self-discovery, to shaking off society’s prescribed labels, until the inevitable falling out and the subsequent realization that everything you needed was right in front of you. Why is it then that the first I heard of this film was when it was floating around social media with the comment ‘This movie could save lives”? Was it Tumblr’s usual brand of sensationalist hyperbole?
As it turns out, it wasn’t.
While it checks every narrative box you’d expect from a film called Boy Meets Girl, there are a couple of unlikely ones it adds to the list of usual suspects. Not only that, it manages to think pretty far outside them: the boxes of human gender and sexuality. Complicated aspects of our existence that are broken down into binary labels and assigned to us at birth, here explored as the spectrums we now know them to be. And like I said, it’s a film that, for the most part, follows a very familiar trajectory, making its fair share of narrative leaps along the way to get its characters from Point A to Point B, all while being framed, lit, scored and edited as conventionally as possible. But maybe that’s exactly what LGBTQIAP* characters and their stories need right now.
On December 28th last year, seventeen-year-old Leelah Alcorn (born Joshua Ryan Alcorn) took her own life, leaving a suicide note on her blog. Her parents eventually had it taken down because it talked about the role they had to play in her death (how they couldn’t accept that she was a girl, and instead chose to send her to ‘corrective’ therapy), but the note, and Leelah’s story, had already been shared thousands of times. Just last week, fifteen-year-old Zander Mahaffey (born Sandra Nicole Mahaffey) posted his own suicide note on Tumblr, citing similar reasons for his intentional overdose. Kids tend to know their gender fairly early on, regardless of the one their were assigned because of their bodies, but even the transgender people who survive the bullying of their parents and peers and make it all the way to adulthood are at constant risk. Some of us are still writing 2014 on our cheques, and eight trans women have been murdered in the United States this year alone, so the fact that there’s an ostensibly ‘typical’ movie out there with a transgender lead (played by a fantastic trans actress, Michelle Hendley) is incredibly important.
Make no mistake, the film doesn’t gloss over the fact that she’s transgender. She faces the same sort of denial, misgendering and dehumanization that leads to cases like Leelah, Zander and the eight women killed this year. But rather than being a movie focused solely on dehumanization (stories that still need to be told, mind you), it’s a story about love and self-discovery, just like any other.
The film opens with childhood best friends Ricky and Robby shooting the shit about men, women and dating while hanging out at Ricky’s place of employ, a coffee shop in small-town Kentucky. Robby’s your typical womanizing, fresh-out-of-high-school jock, but unlike most small-town boys his age, his masculine insecurities don’t prevent him from spending time with his BFF Ricky, a trans girl who’s surprisingly open about her situation. Just as Ricky decides that she’s tired of men playing games and wants to see what it’s like to be with a girl, in walks Francesca, as luck would have it, a young debutante from a rich, Republican family. Your average, awkward meet-cute ensues, and the two hit it off instantly, skirting around their obvious attraction for each other in favour of small talk every time they hang out. The major complication however, is the fact that Francesca is engaged, and to make matters worse, her fiancé David (who’s set to return from Iraq in a few months) was one of the kids who picked on Ricky in high school, and still calls her things like “it” and “thing” and “faggot.”
This doesn’t stop Ricky though. She’s a confident, extroverted designer saving up to go to fashion school in New York, and spends her weekends making clothes and showing them off on her YouTube channel. The narrative structure is largely straightforward, but there’s an important flashback that keeps showing up in bits and pieces that’s probably the film’s only bold stylistic choice. Similar to several videos that started showing up around the same time YouTube did, a twelve-year-old Ricky sits in her room, much younger and with a more ‘emo’ aesthetic, holding up flashcards one by one, telling her viewers (and the audience) her story one sentence at a time, without saying a single word. The video is broken up into pieces to suit what’s going on in the story, but the overarching message is clear. No matter how they might present themselves, many people like Ricky go through hardships that make them feel alienated. They feel abandoned and alone, often turning to self-harm as a means to cope. The smiles they wear out in public are a mechanism to survive, and thoughts of suicide aren’t at all uncommon.
Ricky ‘passes’ for cisgender more often than not. Francesca is so enamoured with her that she doesn’t even question it, and at one point even asks her for a tampon. She’s been on hormone therapy for years, keeping note of her progress by making a note of her bust size every once in a while, and although she can’t afford a full surgical transition just yet, she’s as outwardly effeminate as she wants to be. In the minds of some people, this raises the question: why be open about your gender when you can easily pass for what society considers ‘normal’? “Transgender is such an ugly word,” says a middle-aged conservative woman with a smile on her face. She means well, but she’s part of the problem, and adds to the myriad of micro-aggressions that Ricky is forced to face on a daily basis. And while it might seem like the woman has a point, what she’s really asking is: “Why be who you are when you can just as easily hide?”
Ricky, being Ricky, chooses not to. And, perhaps just as importantly, people stand up for her. Her father, her best friend Robby, and even Francesca’s father, an elderly, conservative gentleman who’s seen how much Francesca enjoys her company. The only person who seems outwardly and vocally against Ricky’s existence is David, a soldier who’s concerned that he’ll be the laughing stock of his unit when they find out his fiancée has been hanging out with a “tranny.” But even David is approached as a rounded, complete character as opposed to some kind of evil, bigoted entity lurking in the shadows. His hatred stems completely from his own insecurities and (not to give too much away) his own sexual experiences, and the film even affords him the opportunity to unlearn his prejudices and make amends.
While Boy Meets Girl is stylistically simple, its screenplay is not. Writer-director Eric Schaeffer has a complete understanding of just how complicated the topics of gender and sexuality can be. His cast embodies those complications brilliantly, and mines each conversation for the maximum amount of silly charm and poignancy. Ricky’s comfortable with the people around her, but she still isn’t comfortable using certain words, the kind of words a child wouldn’t ordinarily say in front of a parent or teacher. Instead of outright telling Francesca that’s she’s transgender, something she feels completely comfortable doing, mind you, she tells her in the form of a text message while sitting right next to her. Francesca misunderstands, and assumes she means that she was dfab (designated female at birth) and wishes to transition to male. While Ricky is asking Robby about the female anatomy since he has more experience with women, specifically “down there” as she calls it, the conversation is as awkward-funny as any other conversation about sex involving inexperienced high schoolers, and the film isn’t willing to skirt around certain topics even if the characters are.
With approaching the complicated nature of sex and gender comes the complicated nature of sexuality and its related labels. As a society, we’re finally getting to a stage where words like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are used more openly (we’re just about getting there with ‘bisexual’) but we’re still just beginners at how we approach things. If finally undoing all the oppressive gender and sexual politics in the world is a college degree, then we’re taking notes during the third week of Sexuality 101, because society’s view of sexual attraction is still rooted firmly in the gender binary. But here, we have a set of characters who don’t subscribe to those traditional labels. We have Robby, a cisgender man who considers himself heterosexual for all intents and purposes, attracted to his transgender best friend. Logic would then dictate that since he’s a man attracted to a woman, he’s straight - right? But then we have Ricky, a transgender woman (biologically male) attracted to men. Does that make her gay or straight? Robby seems to think he has the answers when he and Ricky argue about it in his car, and while he’s relatively open-minded, his view of ‘gay sex’ vs ‘straight sex’ boils down completely to genitalia and what goes where. Ricky has a penis, Francesca has a vagina, so any sex they have is considered straight according to society’s definition and his…. But they’re also two women who are attracted to each other, so what does that do for them? Perhaps the more illuminating conversation is the one between Ricky and Francesca, the two people, you know, actually involved in said sex:
Francesca: “Does that make me gay?”
Ricky: “I don’t think so.”
Ricky: “I don’t know.”
Francesca: “Well, it has to make me something.”
That’s really the best way to put it. Boy Meets Girl is a sex-positive film with a lot of affirmative messages about identity, and while it’s definitely an advocate for people labeling themselves if it makes them feel comfortable (Ricky is proud to identify as transgender, even if she doesn’t often say the word), it also goes the other way and tears down the idea that labels are a necessity. They can offer a feeling of security, but going from having the label that society deems most acceptable to not having a definite label AT ALL can be a terrifying thing.
(‘Queer’ is often used as an umbrella term for people of atypical or fluid genders and sexualities, but even this can have negative connotations depending on context, geography or even generation. In the meantime, some people tend to stick with ’Questioning’ if they aren’t quite sure yet.)
When the Ricky and Robby finally have their romcom-warranted falling out (Ricky’s anger seems more out of convenience than any discernible motivation), it’s highlighted by a very specific, very familiar instance of an LGBT ‘ally’ slipping up severely. In the heat of the moment, even the most accepting person is susceptible to falling back on the views and habits they grew up with. “You’re not even a real g-” Robby begins, before realizing how horrible he sounds. “I’m not even a real what?” Ricky taunts, challenging him to own his mistake. In any other film, a personal dig at one’s best friend would be something easily overcome, but here it isn’t just about a habit or an opinion, or even a past mistake. It’s about Ricky’s very identity, who she is at her core, and Robby’s subsequent discovery of the old video about her depression and her late mother’s denial of her gender makes things twice as devastating. His words, which may not have had as much of an impact on anyone else, may have the potential to push someone like Ricky to hurt herself.
Robby finally realizes how much he loves her, and embarks on the small-town equivalent of chasing her to the airport, only rather than her flying to another city, his fear is that Ricky might do something drastic. Thankfully she doesn’t, and the film manages to avoid straying too far from its straightforward set-up for as long as possible. Instead, it chooses the moment where they re-unite to break the mold a little. Robby’s confessing his love for Ricky while she’s swimming at their usual spot, and to see just how accepting of her Robby is willing to be, Ricky steps out of the water, and the film moves to a shot of full-frontal nudity. The moonlight, the water and the kind of seductive strut usually reserved for Bond girls is applied to a pre-op transgender woman, and the film treats it no differently. It neither leers too long nor shies away too soon, but waits just long enough for the two best friends to say what they have to before locking lips and making love under the stars.
Sounds awfully cheesy, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but it’s exactly the kind of convention that narratives like these need and deserve, especially when queer cinema is often relegated to the peripheries of the arthouse conversation. The only other movie about a trans person that most people are familiar with is Boys Don’t Cry, which wasn’t even released this century, but things have definitely started to change for the better. Transgender people are allowed to be more than just the butt of a joke, and social media has made sure that if they ever are, the people responsible know that it’s no longer acceptable. This year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Comedy was an Amazon show about a trans woman (although played by a cisgender man), MTV’s Faking It features a prominent intersex character (she developed as female despite having XY chromosomes), and Laverne Cox, the breakout star of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black is getting her own show on CBS, Doubt, a legal drama written specifically for a transgender lead.
It’s not even just in the realms of film and television: comic series like DC’s Batgirl and Marvel’s Angela: Asgaard’s Assassin have prominently featured transgender characters, something that was once prohibited by the Comics Code Authority, and it matters a great deal. There’s an alarmingly high rate of suicide amongst transgender teens, just as transgender adults stand the risk of being murdered, and in both cases it’s because people don’t view them as human. Those that do, see them as abnormal or something against nature, and some of that has to do with the fact that there’s a lack of representation. People just aren’t used to seeing transgender folks on screen, and in the digital age, that means there’s a gap in how information about them is received and processed, if at all. When normality is defined by what we see around us, what happens to the people we render invisible?
Movies like Boy Meets Girl could help fix that problem. It may not be stylistically groundbreaking, and it certainly doesn’t push the boundaries of narrative storytelling, but it does challenge the way we look at trans and queer people, simply by allowing them to occupy the same space as everyone else. The film is still playing in various theaters around the country, and should be hitting VOD in the spring. If there was any film that needed support and a good word to make a positive impact, this is probably it, so I’d urge you to watch it and spread the word if you can. Good thing the film is worth the effort too, no matter how amateur its trailer might seem.
Oh, and Ricky’s video about self-harm? It actually ends on an incredibly hopeful note. After talking about the people who’ve hurt and left her, she recounts all the good things in her life that make it worth living, and tells other people with thoughts of suicide that they can talk to her if they ever need to.
*LGBTQIAP - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Aromantic, Pansexual/Polysexual