“Church is a way of life for a lot of people in our community” says Cole Ray Davis of rural Deep Run, North Carolina: “it’s very hostile, but it’s home”. Originally known as Jasmine, Cole came out as gay and transgender to his mother at the age of fourteen, who accepted his sexuality but not his gender identity. For the next six years, Cole grapples with his relationship to his gender and his community. First-time filmmaker Hillevi Loven finds Cole in his senior year of high school and follows him over a number of years as he grapples with the reality of defying gender norms in the suffocatingly conservative Bible Belt.
When we first meet Cole he identifies as Jasmine – but goes by the nickname Spazz – and is a gregarious high-school senior who appears to be well-liked amongst his peers. He proudly tells a passer-by on the morning of his graduation that he won the peer judged “most spirited” award by a landslide. Cole believes in God and seeks acceptance in his local church and youth group, yet the Pastor tells him (on the day of his baptism, no less) that homosexuality is a sin and that he needs to change to remain a member of Pastor Price’s church. At the same time, Cole’s girlfriend Leslie breaks up with him after mounting pressure from her deeply religious family.
On top of all this, Cole is forced to stop working as the local baseball team mascot after being physically assaulted at a recent game. Cole tells retrospectively of his substance abuse and depression, yet Loven glosses over Cole’s tale of suicidal ideation by jumping right into Cole’s next relationship, with the well-timed appearance of Ashley in his life. With no deeper exploration of how Cole went from holding a gun to his head to living with his new partner, the audience is left feeling a bit disconnected from his experience. While Deep Run is ostensibly a tale of strength and courage, it’s hard not to feel as if this shallow exploration of a trauma that disproportionately effects the trans community represents a missed opportunity.
To its credit, however, Deep Run treats Cole with respect and portrays his story on his terms: as an ever-changing portrait of growth and change. The film is not only a testament to his courage in the face of perennial adversity, but it’s also a documentation of the journey of Cole reconciling his gender identity with his belief in God, in a community that tells him that God says he is an abomination. At one point, Cole accompanies Ashley to her family’s church, where Pastor Bradley tells of there being “only one way to come to God”. The pastor eventually discloses to Loven his inability to accept homosexuality, and the part he played in assaulting a number of homosexual men when he was younger.
At the church, Pastor Bradley tells Cole (before Cole has made the decision to transition) that he is a “respectable young man”. From behind the camera (one of the only times she speaks), Loven gently asks Cole: “if he views you that way, are you being true to yourself?” Cole replies that he is happy to keep up the charade if it means he and Ashley can be accepted in a church community. Yet this is not the final answer, and Loven intuitively feels that Cole has not fully reconciled his position. The issue of Pastor Bradley is set aside until later, and Loven resumes her diligent observance of Cole’s journey.
This brief glimpse into their relationship – one in which Loven’s presence in some of Cole’s most tender moments is accepted – shows Deep Run for what it truly is, and perhaps what it set out to achieve: a simple and admiring tale of a strong young man who strives to reconcile his relationship with God to his relationship with the gender he feels right in. What Deep Run lacks in skilful editing or cinematographic flare it makes up for with its very genuine sense of emotion and a sense of connection to its admirable and resilient young subject. When the audience sees Cole and Ashley grinning as the North Carolina snow blankets their front yard, it’s hard not to feel the sense of pride and triumph that comes with watching somebody grow despite adversity, as they find the meaning in life that they deserve for all their good faith.