Recent reports have painted a bleak picture for Australian cinema: 2013 saw 26 features released theatrically, and Screen Australia is to receive a 50% funding cut. Luckily for moviegoers, one of those 26 films includes debutante feature director Sophie Hyde’s transgender drama 52 Tuesdays. Though not without its faults, the feature’s poignant depiction of the journey undertaken by 16-year-old protagonist Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and her female-to-male transitioning father, James (Del Herbert-James), promises at least some reconsideration of the reality of Australian cinema’s bleak future.
This glimmer of hope is heralded in part by the film’s considerable success internationally – its premiere in 2013 at Adelaide Film Festival was followed by screenings at the 2014 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. Notably, it won awards at both: a directing award at the former, and a youth jury prize at the latter. More importantly, its realisation was made possible by the South Australian Film Corporation’s FilmLab – a government-funded program – serving as an indicator that public funds into the arts are not futile investments (though not always ‘recoupable’, in producer lingo).
The success is even more heartening given the film’s subtle and considerate treatment of transgender identity, an often-marginalised issue. 52 Tuesdays follows Billie and her father James over the course of a year, as they traverse the complex territory of coping with James’ transgender identification, and its implications for their family. As James struggles to reconcile both his parental obligation to Billie and his still-developing identity, so too does Billie struggle to cope with the supposed ‘loss’ of her mother, that being the distance James requires to ease into a new way of life, seeing Billie only one day a week. Subsequently, Billie is compelled to explore her own budding sexuality through a newfound friendship with fellow high school students Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), whose older-kid allure draws Billie to them.
Billie’s determination, however implicit, to make sense of her father’s transformation is clear in the parallel spelt out by her recording of the illicit activities she, Josh and Jasmine partake in. Often she lingers behind the camera, stipulating the duo’s actions and movements: take off your shirt, now kiss each other – a plethora of commands and instructions which seek to twist and turn the situation, to discover what piques their curiousity and what turns them off. Yet Billie’s physical involvement is integral: she ventures beyond the camera, too, to join in on the friends’ embraces, which are imbued with a mingled awkward and heady buzz. When she experiments sexually, she tests the boundaries of her own preferences and identity. James’ physical female-to-male transformation is similarly documented on video, and this motif of the video-within-video recurs throughout the film. It gives tangibility to a concept so hard to keep a grasp on otherwise: progression and change.
Hyde attempts a documentary-fictional drama hybrid aesthetic, and is largely successful. She is no stranger to documentary work either, having directed her first long-form documentary, Life in Movement, in 2011. Any potential representation of James’ personal struggle as melodrama is countered by the muted colour scheme, and the choice of on-location shoots and non-professional actors – a possible throwback to Lars von Trier and Vinterburg’s Dogme 95. It would be remiss of me not to mention that 52 Tuesdays is experimental at its core. The impetus for the film’s production was screenwriter Matthew Cormack’s pitch to create a film shot every Tuesday afternoon for a year. In other words, fifty-two Tuesdays. To bring it up a notch, the actors were given the scripts in installments – one each Tuesday for the following week, and only scenes pertaining to their respective characters. The shoots were done every Tuesday afternoon until midnight, and whatever rushes they recorded were what cinematographer/editor Bryan Mason had to work with. It is an intriguing approach to filmmaking, and no doubt the film’s realism stems from this episodic methodology.
However, at times, the film’s experiment with form does fall slightly short of the mark. The film’s constraints in keeping each Tuesday scene compact means we are often yanked out of a scene just as it becomes properly dynamic or the emotional core of the scene is reached. Though a promising young performer, Tilda Cobham-Hervey (as Billie), struggles to unearth the authentic and raw emotion necessitated by her direct-to-camera addresses, which are intercut with scenes from the actual narrative. Much of her screen time during these addresses is swallowed up by sighs and stares, without contributing to the feature’s narrative. This is a shame, given the insightful and effective documentary-like ‘talking heads’ that James records in his trip to San Francisco to meet other transmen (though we really know it is Bryan Mason’s work). Del Herbert-James is particularly adept in their portrayal of James, with an understated performance that quietly affects, rather than opting for extremes. The effect of this representation is similar to that of characters such as transwoman Agrado in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999): humanising and empathetic. It is a testament to Hyde and her production team that they opted to both cast Hertbert-James, who is non-gender specific, in a trans role, as well as hire them initially as a gender diversity consultant to the film.
At this point, I must also admit that Billie’s queer uncle Harry (Mario Späte) is bemusing. His characterisation in the film vacillates between supportive and perceptive, then suddenly to emotionally bullying, though Späte does his best with the material provided. Beau Travis Williams as Billie’s other, cis-gendered father Tom, is mostly on point in his portrayal of a father trying to balance his daughter with other responsibilities.
It is an ambitious feature that does not always succeed, but these reservations do not diminish the indisputable contribution of 52 Tuesdays to Australian, and queer, cinema. Sophie Hyde and her production team are young, fresh new voices welcome in our cinematic landscape.
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