Mom, Dad and I have the same breast size now!
For those that aren’t regular readers of this review site, you might have missed me previously referencing in the reviews for Zerophilia and Laurence Anyways that I am changing gender from male to female and started transitioning just after I turned 28 years old. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a review full of comparisons between what happened at around that time to what happens with the character of Roy.
Before I started transitioning I took in as many chances as I possibly could to watch as many trans-related films as I could and that lead me to this HBO film about a middle-aged man who suddenly reveals that he wants to be a woman.
Whilst this isn’t one of the strongest trans-related films I have ever seen, this is probably the most realistic and related to most people watches as it not only focuses on Roy’s experiences as he starts transitioning, but also the reaction of his family, co-workers and the community when he isn’t around.
Roy (Wilkinson) and Irma (Lange) are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary with friends and family when Roy collapses suddenly. After waking up there is a noticeable emotional difference in Roy and when they seek help from their local minister, Roy suddenly reveals that he has been living a lie and wants to be a woman, much to the shock of Irma.
Irma throws Roy out of the family home but this doesn’t deter Roy as he starts his transition from male to female. Roy chooses to ease in his transition at work, starting by wearing perfume before making more obvious appearance changes, much to the disgust of most of his colleagues and the stunned surprise of his boss, Frank (Brown). Frank, realising that Irma is now available, tries to start a romantic relationship.
Despite their difficulties, Roy and Irma start living together again but it is an uneasy relationship. Roy eventually starts to realise that transitioning wouldn’t be as easy as he had hoped. He is thrown out of his local church and receives a less than supportive reaction from his son and other family members.
So is it any good?
In many ways “Normal” is one of the most realistic films about someone changing gender that I have seen. It deals with the real emotional aspects of the transition and doesn’t feel forced.
There are a few reasons for this and the main reason is due to Wilkinson’s approach to the film and not doing any research into transgenderism meant that he went into the role with an almost curious innocence. Much like Roy, he knows nothing about how to be a woman and that shows as despite being in his 50s at the time of filming, he is almost like a child learning something for the first time and I do mean that in a positive sense. For a character that has had virtually no exposure to that world or a chance to practice. The character has spent pretty much all of his life either at work or with his wife.
Arguably the most enjoyable part in many ways was seeing Roy start his transition at the same time that his daughter starts puberty and this introduced an interesting dynamic. I’m not going to lie, I’ve never been a fan of Hayden Panettiere but she did a reasonable job in what was arguably her most grown up role at the time of the film. She did the shocked but supportive daughter role very well. She was only 13 in 2002 and just at the start of her puberty and her interactions on screen with her transitioning father were an interesting comparison of a natural female and someone becoming female.
Being transgendered myself I know the general rules for transitioning and Roy is given hormones when still quite clearly living as a man. Now, I’m English and am obviously not an expert on the American medical system, either private or mainstream healthcare, but I find the likelihood of someone been giving hormones to change gender whilst still clearly living as their birth gender a bit of a stretch. I have personally known people who have been denied the chance to start changing gender simply because of the job they did or because they wore jeans to the initial consultation, so the chances of someone being given hormones before they have started living in the role as their chosen gender is exceptionally unlikely.
That is one of the few things that I did find relatively unrealistic though as everything else is seemingly pretty well researched. The difficulties that the character experiences once the transition begins is relatively realistic, ranging from being shunned by the local church, receiving a heavy negative reaction at work and Irma’s former suitors suddenly take an interest again now that Roy is seemingly out of the picture. People who transition from one gender or another have either very positive or very negative transitions, and this film certainly focuses on the latter.
Wilkinson easily stands out amongst his cast members and is really the only character that shows any real depth. A big deal is made about Roy’s son struggling to come to terms with the transition but he rarely features in the film so there’s no real tension or feelings when this is brought up again towards the end of the film. The son isn’t even developed other than a brief seen where he is seen mocking the decision to change gender to his friends. Having said that, he appears to have gotten over the initial surprise when he visits the family for Christmas and is greeted by his now very femininely developed father dressed in male clothing, offering a hand-shake and being very masculine, again much to his surprise.
To end the review I’m going to reference the relationship between Roy/Ruth and Irma. Whilst their difficulties early on are understandable, everything afterwards feels forced and despite supposedly being married for 25 years, they seemingly share no chemistry whatsoever. Lange is just bland as Irma and as good as Wilkinson is, he can’t carry an entire film on his own. Even Irma’s developing relationship with Roy’s boss is feels forced as Lange and Brown again have no chemistry. I won’t claim to have seen Lange in much but she did precisely nothing for me in this film.
The awkwardness of transitioning for a character in the later stages of middle age is well done but there is a lot of filler in this film and the cast, other than Wilkinson, struggles to make it count. Wilkinson tries his hardest to carry the film but fails through no fault of his own, he’s just not supported well enough by a strong enough script. There are plenty of films where the story is focused on a very small group of characters and they all support each other excellently, with “The Fly” being a great example, but I just don’t get that with this film.
Normal isn’t a bad film by any stretch but it never really gets out of first gear and it’s hard to really get engaged because of this. Whilst the character of Roy/Ruth is interesting, the supporting cast of characters just doesn’t really add anything.
There are interesting aspects to the film that are touched on, such as the parallel developments of the female body from different origins, but they don’t save this from falling into the realms of being average.