Afternoons With Dad: 52 Tuesdays

The lives of transgender folks remain under-represented in cinema, and too often when they are represented, the works in question seldom focus on the daily existence and common humanity of trans people. Instead, there is a tendency to highlight tragedy and struggle, or in many cases to sensationalize the very fact of transgender bodies. This is due in large part to the cis-sexism of the film industry, which is more than happy to generate stories about trans folks with little or no input from transgender or gender-nonconforming people, in front of or behind the camera.

This in turn creates a sort of iron cage of narrative possibility, wherein the imagination of what trans lives can be, and how those lives might be represented, is radically curtailed. This is certainly the case for the wave of TV episodes and “reality” programs that seem to be applying an ostensible cloak of sensitivity and inclusion in order to cash in on cis-curiosity about transgender existence, usually reinforcing stereotypes in the process. But even films of high artistic achievement, such as Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry and Bertrand Bonello’s Tiresia, unwittingly lapse into melodrama or specularization. This isn’t to say that these are wholly unacceptable artistic choices. But there ought to be more.

52 Tuesdays, the feature film debut of Australian director Sophie Hyde, is a highly unusual film. It is based on a temporarily strained relationship between a parent and a child, particularly a non-custodial arrangement stipulating that they will spend Tuesday evenings together every week for a year. Using the daughter’s experimentation with a video diary as a premise (although the film doesn’t restrict itself to this point of view), each segment is labeled by date and week number, so as to very strictly designate the passage of time, the shifting of images, and the slow evolution of self. What makes this structure much more than a gimmick is that the girl, Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is also documenting the transition of her mother from a woman to a man.

If anything, 52T foregrounds the everyday so insistently that it can occasionally lose sight of the broader picture. Nevertheless, Hyde has created a film that recognizes, right down to its very bones, that gender transition is both a gradual and a monumental process. What’s more, 52T places its protagonist’s transition from woman to man into a very unique familial context. We see James (Del Herbert-Jane) undergoing his transformation while simultaneously renegotiating his relationship with Billie. She is accepting of James’ trans identity, and asks relevant questions respectfully. (E.g., “Do I call you Dad now?”)  But she is also a high-school aged girl about to embark on her first sexual experiences, and the fact that James has asked her to move out during her first year of transition has led her to feel abandoned. The film details James’ attempt to renegotiate his relationship with Billie within the context of his new acceptance of his own identity as a trans man.

52 Tuesdays treads a very careful line, one which makes it a complex piece of art rather than an I-dotting, T-crossing document of official transgender representation. In many respects, James’ experience will no doubt resonate with trans viewers, but in other ways it most definitely will not. It attempting to tell a very specific, personal story focused on day-by-day, week-by-week personal evolution, Hyde and screenwriter Matthew Cormack quite obviously take a risk, by reinserting the particularity of transgender experience into the broader drift of humanism. For example, the film quite clearly parallels James’ transition and its difficulties (e.g., he discovers that his liver will not tolerate testosterone injections from HRT) with Billie’s own complicated sexual exploration with two friends, Josh (Sam Althuzen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer).

This is a tricky maneuver, and it is only partly successful. By comparing Billie’s sexual awakening with James’ self-realization as a man, Hyde wants to emphasize a kind of truism, that we are all “works in progress.” This is a valid narrative impulse, especially given the fact that 52T’s one-day-a-week structure insists on a kind of macro-view of personal change. At the same time, Billie is a child and James is an adult, and as such James has a much keener grasp of what he is doing and what it has cost him. By paralleling James’ full physical and emotional actualization as a man with Billie’s post-adolescent sexual longings, Hyde and Cormack risk casting James’ transition as a kind of second puberty or an act of immaturity. In fact, it is quite the opposite, a deeply considered, later-life embrasure of identity after years of suppression.

Toward the end of the film, things take an unexpected turn toward the hyperbolic, as certain ill-advised choices of Billie’s result in severe consequences. Given the delicate balance and sensitivity of so much of the preceding narrative, this lunge toward awkward sensationalism is regrettable. It not only sidelines James and his relationship with Billie; it plays more like a scenario from a teen soap like “Pretty Little Liars” than the conclusion to an arthouse drama. Nevertheless, 52 Tuesdays is a highly original film both on its own formal terms and in its refreshing determination to depict trans life as life, not a set of issues or a series of tragic events. It is confusing, and exhilarating, and mundane.