Entertainment » Movies

She’s a Boy I Knew

by Robert Newton
National Film Editor
Monday Apr 28, 2008
Gwen Haworth spills all about her trek to become a beautiful butterfly in "She’s A Boy I Knew."
Gwen Haworth spills all about her trek to become a beautiful butterfly in "She’s A Boy I Knew."  (Source:Tif Flowers (Photographer))

"To me the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them, and you know, suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder. And for once the so-called 'professionalism' about movies will be destroyed. Forever. And it will really become an art form." -- Francis Ford Coppola

So predicted the oft-quoted grandfatherly "Godfather" guru way back in the 1980s. Of course, after seeing Gwen Haworth's beautiful and deeply personal testament She's A Boy I Knew, he may as well have said "some little boy-girl in Vancouver." Haworth, born Steven into a typical Canadian family in the early 1970s, tells with humor and passion her story of personal discovery and transformation in much the same way Jonathan Caouette delivered his 2003 confessional, "Tarnation." She taps a vast reservoir of family home movies (and recorded phone messages) and pairs them with the obligatory talking heads and appropriate or contrasting cutaways, mostly smart and high-quality original animations. Her film is less manic that Caouette's burlesque, though, creating its tension with multiple story lines, and even though it feels a little short, the big questions we come up with at the outset all get answered, and in a most satisfying way.

An accessible little piece of art, warmly drawn, lovingly sculpted and colorfully painted.

At first, when we hear Gwen's slightly unmodulated girl voice narrating this "auto-ethnography," our first reaction might be, "This better not be another whiny missive about how you're a delicate snowflake that the world just doesn't understand you." Quickly, though, she gets to introducing her cast of characters -- the people in her life who love her -- and then gets them all to spill about how her decision to change her sex affected them and their view of the boy they knew. Of course, a more stereotypical family of a transsexual would make for much more high drama through shunning and disowning and the like. The greatest beauty of "She's A Boy I Knew" is not in insincere milking of non-events as would a reality show, but in the tempered layering of one very real family's very real feelings and the angst-frought and sometimes alien journey of their son, brother and husband into womanhood.

One of the only feature films about transsexuality in which the filmmaker herself is actually transsexual, Haworth's straightforward and efficient storytelling techniques do occasionally leave one wanting more. While she explores her past relationships with others and how her Big Life Change affected them, she does not look at other interesting connections, most notably the bond between Steven's enchanting Polish wife, Malgosia, and her handicapped brother, Roko. Their relationship is more a matter-of-fact, and reactions from her family are untended, also. Steven's best friend, Roari, chimes in only occasionally; either he wasn't as open as Haworth's parents and two sisters were or the story we'd really like to hear -- the so-overdone "guy falls for best friend who's now a girl (but still dates girls)" tale -- just wasn't.

What is, though, is an accessible little piece of art, warmly drawn, lovingly sculpted and colorfully painted. It is an celebration of identity and the lifelong quest for it, and a precision call to stop mourning the living and instead embrace all the things that they still are. It is a film about real people by real people who refuse to play the victim, instead charging ahead without all the answers but with the willingness to grow and learn without a single, fetishistic goal becoming the finish line in the lifelong journey. It is the DIY sensibility and outright boldness of people like this willing to risk so much to tell their own story that makes Gwen that proverbial fat girl from Ohio, the maestro of her own life and the confident creator of a world we get to visit for a precious 70 minutes.

Robert Newton is the National Film Editor for EDGE. He is also Editor of North Shore Movies Weekly, and a film and TV writer for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He is also an award-winning novelty recording artist (aka "Fig"), and runs The Cape Ann Community Cinema on the island of Gloucester, MA.


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