Just Charlie is a small film but powerful entrant into the onscreen stories of trans people.
Just Charlie tells the story of Charlie Lyndsay (Harry Gilby) at the most difficult moment of his young life. A star footballer for his local club, Charlie has the opportunity to move up to a better team that will polish his skills for the pros. His father, Paul (Scot Williams), a former footballer himself, cannot understand why his son is wavering at this opportunity and, even worse, losing interest in football altogether. The answer devastates Paul when it is revealed that Charlie is a transgender person and can no longer live in his assigned male gender. Charlie wants to transition to female and, in doing so, affects her family, friends and community.
Written by Peter Machen and directed by Rebekah Fortune, Just Charlie doesn’t avoid exploring the difficulties of being suddenly thrust into awareness of the social construct gender. Pronouns are fumbled as Charlie’s mother, Susan (Patricia Potter), and sister, Eve (Elinor Machen-Fortune), support Charlie through her coming-of-age journey. Classmates and adults display intrinsic ignorance as Charlie slowly expresses her femininity. Friends are lost, and Paul spends most of the film giving the intolerant their cues. He cannot accept who his son is meant to be.
In the first act of the film, Charlie acts as a bridge between masculine and feminine spaces. Fortune films Charlie in soft lights while she’s still confined to her assigned gender but allowed to explore the clothes she yearns to wear or the body she seeks to change. There is a fairy tale quality to the scenes of Charlie’s secret world in contrast to the muted green and grays of football pitches, playgrounds and classrooms she occupies while performing male. It is Paul who interrupts one of Charlie’s fantasies, bringing the secret to light. Once Charlie begins her transition, Fortune forgoes sentiment for the more realistic misè-a-scene, though the beatific lighting makes another appearance toward the end of the film.
There are understandable beats to a story like this, but Machen and Fortune wisely and surprisingly skip a few or elude to occurrences off-screen. The crux of the film is Charlie’s move from young man to trans woman, but matters of hormones, surgery and the general process of transition happen in snippets of dialogue or when characters are reading websites for their own edification. Machen and Fortune are more interested in stirring emotion than delving into the science of gender reassignment. There are books like Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness that perform that service.
But, for the creative ways the film respects the intelligence of its viewers, some of the creative choices are mystifying. There is an act of violence telegraphed since 1999 when Hillary Swank took a punch as Brandon Teena and wholly unnecessary in its obviousness. And while the bond between a father and son, particularly a father living his athletic dreams vicariously through his son, is a valid point of exploration, Paul’s arc gets too much focus.
That being said, Just Charlie is a deeply moving film. Its emotional resonance comes from the child at its center. Harry Gilby plays Charlie with kindness, dignity and a sweetness of spirit that makes a viewer more than protective of the character. He becomes an easy vehicle for those of us with children who fall into the empathic thought experiment: What if this was my child? Gilby’s excellence carries the film, the monologue he delivers to his grandmother will be the clip they play at award shows, and the rest of the cast is excellent. Potter plays Susan with all the fear and strength of a parent trying to shepherd her child through a difficult time. Machen-Fortune is fearsome as Eve, the sister who loved Charlie unconditionally and accepted their new reality without reserve. She also acts as Charlie’s guide to a more feminine world. The saving grace of Paul is the actor playing him. Williams has the thankless job of playing the member of the family who can’t accept Charlie, but the actor never makes Paul a monster or a caricature.
It is a romantic notion to believe that films can change the world, but perhaps feeling cynical about that notion says more about one’s privilege and wealth of representation on screen. The power of the art form now resides with the stories of people on the margins that defamiliarize what we think we know about our society and the human condition. Just Charlie is a small film but powerful entrant into the onscreen stories of trans people. Hopefully the day will soon arrive when the need for such matters of representation will seem antiquated.