In October 1999, Kimberly Peirce’s drama Boys Don’t Cry was released in American theatres, starting an awards season trajectory that would result in an eventual Oscar win for lead actress Hilary Swank. It’s the rare film starring a cisgender actor in a trans role to not feel embarrassing in retrospect, due to the care the director took when researching the life of Brandon Teena – but unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for culture at the time. Although rapturously received as a heartbreaking triumph, the character of Brandon was frequently misgendered by cultural commentators, even as the story revolved around the violence he faced for being trans.
For many, this was the first exposure to a well rounded transgender character within mainstream cinema, even if they didn’t use the correct language to express their love for it. That very same month, elsewhere in America, Roger Hill began work on a screenplay he wouldn’t film for another two decades, that similarly explored trans masculinity in small town America – and had far more on its mind than being what could reductively be described as an “issues movie” years later. Huckleberry is set during the late nineties, but wears its period setting lightly, dealing with many issues that sadly haven’t ceased to be relevant in the years since it was initially conceived. But Hill’s film is more than this, opting instead for a richer and more complex character study than going down the expected route. The titular character is flawed in ways we rarely allow characters from underrepresented demographics to be onscreen, hopefully signalling that the time is finally here for trans actors to start getting roles where their gender comes a distant second to the character they’re playing.
Huckleberry (Daniel Fisher-Golden) has a crush on his lifelong friend Jolene (Sarah Ulstrup), even though she’s deep in a relationship with Clint (Justin Rose), a drug addicted, violent man far beneath her. After taking Jolene to a secluded spot to film a school project together, they kiss, and Huckleberry’s feelings intensify – and after Jolene becomes despondent soon after, he discovers that Clint’s violent behaviour has gone too far. Taking matters into his own hands, he irreparably changes the dynamics of his friendship group as he confuses seeking justice with winning the heart of a girl he has long admired.
In an interview with Greater Cleveland’s LGBT Community Center, lead actor Daniel Fisher-Golden spoke at length at how it was important for him to take on such a complex role as it didn’t feel like just another “transgender story”. This is something which has repeatedly, and shamefully, proved to be the only type of film that casting directors are willing to cast trans actors in. Despite the small town and the period setting, the fairly insular focus on the handful of characters means we only get infrequent looks at the kind of casual prejudice that was commonplace; being dead named by teachers, accidentally misgendered in conversations, or having to take hormones bought online due to a lack of medical diagnosis. These are frequent irritations that (in what we see here) mostly aren’t depicted as being malicious in intent, even if they inherently act to deny a person of their existence regardless.
Hill is more interested in telling a morality tale born out of a love triangle, complicating perceptions of the characters as a slice of life drama slowly reveals itself to be a gritty update of a classic noir formula. You can see why Fisher-Golden was so drawn to the material – instead of being depicted as a victim or as a reductive representation of an entire gender’s struggle, he relishes the opportunity to play a boy happy to ruin lives and relationships on his quest for romantic happiness. As he goes from likeable protagonist to anti-hero, I was left surprised at how Hill had managed to create such a morally questionable character without his film being at risk of being perceived as transphobic. And then I realised: we see similarly complex cisgender characters all the time, and writing these roles for underrepresented groups is, as unlikely as it sounds, a great way of normalising onscreen representation, ensuring actors aren’t just being handed the same roles (almost unanimously revolving around their gender status) time and time again.
Huckleberry is two decades in the making, but it’s landed at the right time as a showcase for a promising young trans actor – and shows there’s potential for more challenging roles to be given to trans performers.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Roger Hill