"Gun Hill Road" opened last night in New York City and Los Angeles, and the trailer didn't lie: this movie is the compelling and realistic story of a transsexual teen in a complex Latino family, and it portrays the realities of early transition and familial gender politics with an insight rarely achieved in film. It's playing until August 11, and if you're in New York or LA, I strongly recommend you get yourself to the theater.
What makes this film particularly savory is its combination of gritty realism and the ambiguity that pervades reality. It's the story of Vanessa (Harmony Santana), a Latino teenager realizing herself as a transsexual girl in a multi-ethnic Bronx neighborhood where machismo reigns. Her homophobic father Enrique (Esai Morales), released from prison, expects to find his son Michael, now in the furtive process of becoming Vanessa, little understanding that Michael is not the little boy he left. Her mother Angela (Judy Reyes) understands that Michael is changing, though her comprehension is unspoken and ambiguous, and loves her none the less. Vanessa herself is engaged in the joyful and torturous process of self-revelation and understanding what it means to be a young transsexual in the Bronx. None of the characters can see the complete picture, though it becomes clearer as the film progresses, before becoming muddier again. There's no triumphant, happy ending, nor is there a tragic ending, and at the end of the film the audience is stuck with a cross-section of a life and left to work out for itself what success means in this fraught context.
Enrique's growing incomprehension leads him to try to engage Vanessa in the male world of baseball and women in a misguided attempt to make her into the son he expects. His own entrapment in a macho world of crime and brittle masculinity makes it impossible for him to comprehend Vanessa, but his love for his child leads him towards sympathy and understanding, though what he understands is not quite clear. Vanessa herself seems to yearn for a relationship with her father, but the gulf may be too great. This slowly narrowing gap between father and child, faltering as it is, mirrors the reality of transsexual teens, who are neither equipped to explain gender politics to their families nor able to resist the pull of their evolving natures. This results in a dizzying and potentially explosive mix of growing closeness and dysfunctionality, and one is never sure where this will end up.
Meanwhile, Vanessa is going out at night, and discovering approval and love in a poetry slam club, where she delivers her growing understanding to an audience of friends in cadence. Although the more likely venue for Vanessa in reality would be a much more unsavory world of alcohol and drug-fueled sexuality, the film's sedate poetry club setting allowed a truer view of Vanessa as a person -- an intelligent young woman with a rich variety of friendships in an accepting environment of her own creation. This also allowed a view of the contrasting soul-kllling reality of her creeping home at 3am, where she has to pretend to be Michael again and her insomniac father awaits her. She also learns about the dangers, as she gets "pumped" with injections of baby oil into her buttocks and buys street hormones. The film never explicitly mentions the dangers of these, which would have been a good idea for those young people who might be tempted, but its graphic depiction of these scenes shows both the extreme undesirability of pumping and street hormones and Vanessa's internal compulsion to be attractive despite the dangers. Her relationship with a young man is also portrayed convincingly, as he attempts to keep their relationship secret and strictly confined to his bedroom, and fails to defend her on the one occasion they go out, saying "you're not my girl." But overarching these difficult realities is the triumph of Vanessa's slow but sure evolution into young womanhood. Harmony Santana, the young actress who delivers a stunning performance as Vanessa, is particularly notable both because she is new to acting, and because it is one of the few instances of a transsexual woman being cast in a trans role.
At the end, I was left with a mixed sense of triumph and heartbreak for the young Vanessa, who is learning to come to grips with her identity and yet is enmeshed in the gender politics of the family. While the story is set in a Latino family, and the elements of machismo and motherly acceptance are played up to demonstrate the clashing forces, I have seen and heard this same story, with different accents and flourishes, in many types of families and settings. The personal is the political. While my attention is more often taken up with societal gender politics, the political issues within families -- who is in charge of family morality, what does it mean to be a good parent, what are the limits of acceptance -- are just as important and just as universal.
You can find movie times and buy tickets here.