On the surface, Just Charlie is a sensitive and tenderly told story of a transgender girl coming out. Yet the film’s strength doesn’t lie solely within this central character struggle – instead, director Rebekah Fortune’s film draws its power from attempting to empathise with the confusion of Charlie’s family as much as Charlie’s own confused gender identity. The film doesn’t belittle any of the characters despite their regressive initial reactions to Charlie’s coming out, their wildly different paths towards coming to terms with this seismic development every bit as important to the story’s resonance as the tale of self acceptance at the film’s core.
Harry Gilby plays Charlie, a budding football star in his early teens who finds herself slowly shutting off from daily life as puberty beckons. Her father (Scot Williams) is forcing her into a football career she is suddenly less interested in, with parental pressure and the ongoing stresses of maturing in to a young man leading her to come to terms with who she really is – a girl trapped in a boy’s body. After being caught wearing make-up, Charlie’s father reacts drastically, and relationships within the family start to falter as they face up to Charlie taking the brave step of deciding to live life as a girl.
The performances help sell the emotional toll that Charlie’s coming out takes on the family. There may be controversy at the idea of a cis-gender actor portraying a transgender girl both pre and post-coming out, but Gilby handles the role sensitively, with no exaggerated tics to differentiate the disparate stages of Charlie’s life – something a lesser performer would define their performance by using. His performance is just one piece of the puzzle, as the film’s best performances comes courtesy of Scot Williams. Peter Machen’s screenplay may characterise Charlie’s father as a more overtly bigoted man, but Williams’ performance defies such simple categorisation. This is a man emotionally torn by the confusion that the child he so recently called his son is anything but – his increased emotional withdrawal mirroring that of Charlie in the film’s earlier stages. His anger is never played out as anger at his child, but rather anger at his own confusion as the child he loved isn’t the person he thought they were.
Rebekah Fortune’s film arrives at a time when conversation around transgender issues and transgender acceptance has finally arrived in the mainstream. It doesn’t feel like a highbrow work of cinema, but rather a film pitched to those with little prior knowledge of transgender issues – it’s an empathetic work designed to combat bigotry among unaware audiences by giving them the education on transgender issues so sorely lacking in society. That it does this while also managing to be an intimately drawn character drama, one that doesn’t ever play out as a mere think piece on this important subject, makes Just Charlie well worth seeking out. It may not be the best LGBT film of the year, but if seen by a wide audience, feels like the most palatable film to start an even larger cultural conversation about the issues faced by transgender youth.
Just Charlie isn’t your average coming of age or coming out film. By taking the entire family’s emotional journey into account, Rebekah Fortune has crafted a film that feels keenly realised and very much of the moment.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Wolfe