If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then this timely, personal documentary (2015) proves the happy ones can be pretty unique, as well. How does a family stay together when one person changes their identity profoundly in certain respects, while remaining "still me" in others? It has something to do with forgiveness, and everything to do with love. Sharon Shattuck directed this portrait of the marriage of her parents, Trisha and Marcia. Her father, Trisha, came out as a trans woman when Sharon was going through adolescence, and her kid sister was even younger. (My dad grew a mustache when my sister and I were teens, and we found that traumatic enough.) As her own wedding day approaches, she reflects on her parents' union, and the picture becomes a meditation on the bond of marriage itself: two people becoming one, transcending their physical bodies in some sense.
Understated and respectful in tone, this film probably could not have been made, I imagine, absent the trust inherent in the family relationship. Shattuck's probing of Trisha, seeking to understand her dad's decision to transition into a woman, despite the chance it would tear the family apart, is gentle but occasionally painful. Trisha and Marcia seem like essentially private people, and here they are talking about their most private, intimate decisions, fingering old wounds.
When we meet her, Trisha's habit is to adopt signifiers of "masculine" or "feminine" depending on how she feels like expressing herself on a given day. Gender is still in flux for her. She might wear a skirt one day, a cowboy hat the next. Her white hair is cut short. In family photos, though, we see her during Shattuck's teen years, when she presented as a full-on--and really rather striking--woman, with flowing long hair.
Her's dad's quite a character, really, even a bit of a ham for the camera, as Shattuck notes in the film's press package. She's got "joie de vivre." I think of her taking part in a jam session with family and friends, happily sawing away on her fiddle. At other times, she struggles to keep happiness from slipping through her fingers, and finds it as fleeting as any of us do.
Marcia is a vibrant woman with bright eyes and an open-hearted smile. Family photos show hers to have been a life filled with laughter, but not without the heartbreak and pain that visits every life. After Trisha first came out, Marcia decided she had no choice: they would divorce. Then, in some way that seems mysterious even to them, their bond seems to have grown even stronger.
Together, they show what "together through life" really means. In their hard-won union, we may even feel we glimpse the secret to the making of a long-term, successful marriage. Apparently, laughter helps.
This film serves as a showcase for Trisha's striking "abstract expressionist" paintings, as well. Shattuck fills the screen with her dad's artwork. (Like anyone, Trisha, a landscape architect by trade, would prefer to be known for her work, not reduced to an instance of a type.) I like her paintings very much. Some are disquieting. It's like peering through windows into her unconscious, and she "reads" them for us, illuminatingly. In one, an unhappy clown looks straight at us, and his scared eyes speak volumes about what it feel like to be an imposter in your own skin. To feel trapped in there.
If I say "From This Day Forward" could be screened at a community center or a church, I do not mean that pejoratively. Quite the reverse: it's a way of saying the film is not just preaching to the converted. Nor does it shy away from risking potential audience discomfort or disorientation. By inviting us to get to know her father, Shattuck has made a film not about "transgender issues" in a general sense, but about a specific person and her concrete story. In the way she presents her parents and their relationship to viewers, Shattuck's film adopts her parent's approach: we're just us, take it or leave it. When she interviews neighbors in their small Michigan town, we are pleased when they accept Trisha. "I don't care who a person is, as long as they're good," one says. I've got to hope and believe most Americans would agree with that sentiment.
When it comes to identity and love and acceptance, this thought-provoking film leaves us with much to chew on. You could even put it on the shelf next to "The Crying Game." Without seeking to be flip, there's a way in which Osgood's wonderful final line from "Some Like It Hot"--his response to the big reveal ("I'm a man!")--is profoundly on-point: "Well, nobody's perfect."
"From this Day Forward" screens at Facets Cinémathèque, May 20-26.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)