‘By Hook or By Crook’ Is an Ode to Brotherhood

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit queer classics we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is Harry Dodge and Silas Howard’s By Hook or By Crook.

I realize it’s cliche for a queer and trans person to be saying this, but I’m going to admit it anyway: I’m always thinking about family. Not just my own biological family or my “chosen” one but family as a concept. Family as in the way we’re bound to each other and seek to be bound to each other and how we don’t confront the interpersonal harm we perpetuate through some of these relationships. More specifically, I guess, I’m always thinking about brotherhood.

I grew up with two brothers. My half-brother, the child from my father’s first marriage, is three years older than me, and my brother, the one who I share both parents with, is a year younger. Most people who grow up with brothers have stories that are imbued with camaraderie, misled and innocuous mischief, some fighting, and a lot of joy and laughter. I certainly have some of those. But usually, when I think about my brothers, I think about what we never had because the circumstances of our families made them hard, difficult, angry, and violent. As a kid, I’d hoped that our shared tragedies would make us a team. But my perceived gender and my “ability,” in their eyes, to “transcend” what we went through together and come out “good” on the other side made me a target instead. I never got to be their brother. I was their “sister.” And perhaps most appallingly to them, I was their “sister” who believed we were capable of being brothers, of forging a bond of friendship, trust, and protection that could carry us through it all.

They never outright rejected me — they didn’t have to because it was evident in the way they treated me. In a lot of ways, that rejection has followed me through most of my life. It doesn’t feel like I’m ever consciously looking for them, but somehow, I’ve always found brothers — people willing to do the work of forging a bond of friendship, trust, and protection — in the places I least expect to find them.

At the beginning of Silas Howard and Harry Dodge’s 2001 film, By Hook or By Crook, neither Shy (Howard) nor Valentine (Dodge) are looking for a brother. In fact, Shy is wandering aimlessly through San Francisco, and Valentine is getting his ass kicked by some guy in a darkened parking lot. It’s not clear why Valentine is getting beat up, but Shy decides to step in regardless to protect him. When both of them get knocked to the floor, there’s a moment of recognition between them and they can see clearly how different they are from the man doing the knocking down. Shy is able to get to his feet and promptly kick the attacker in his balls. Afterwards, Valentine — who we’re given the impression has some kind of mental health issue — follows Shy, despite his insistence that Valentine “go home.” They eventually end up at the Lexington Club, where Shy steals Valentine’s wallet before finding a motel to stay the night.

The next day, Shy shows up at the house Valentine shares with his adoring girlfriend, Billie (Stanya Kahn). He doesn’t admit to stealing the wallet, but he does tell Valentine that he had to “borrow” some money and he has a way for them to make it back. Shy’s big ideas aren’t very big at all: He just wants a partner to participate in the petty crimes and scheming he’s been planning. Valentine willingly takes the position and, through their preparation and planning (which isn’t much), they hang out and get to know each other a little (only a little) better. Shy lies about his family a lot, but through flashbacks, we learn his father had a penchant for scheming, too. Valentine has been living as above-board as possible, but he’s desperate to find his birth mother and he has a history of institutionalization that haunts him. As they’re doing their mostly harmless schemes, they’re also just living their lives and trying to figure out how to get through the next day. At some point, a neighbor reports Shy, Valentine, and Billie for stealing a car out of the neighborhood for a couple of hours before bringing it back. Because they returned the car, the cops don’t have any evidence to keep them locked up or get them convicted. But their mere presence triggers Valentine enough for him to react violently towards them.

Frustratingly and disastrously, this gives the police reason to not only arrest Valentine but “51-50” him, which is code for sending him to a mental health facility. Shy mistakenly believes he’ll only be held for three days until Billie reminds him that Valentine “has priors” and it’ll be much longer than that before they release him. Shy is forced to reckon with the damage and trauma he’s brought on his friend as he tries to figure out what to do about it. He, somewhat miraculously, locates Valentine’s birth mother (by cold calling women with Valentine’s birth name in the phone book), and then successfully busts Valentine out of the institution. At the end, we’re left with Shy, Valentine, and Billie approaching the house of the woman who says she’s Valentine’s birth mother with the possibility of a new love and understanding enveloping them.

By Hook or By Crook is kind of a meandering, messy, plotless thing shot on a very small budget with DV home video cameras. A kind of fuzziness hangs over the whole picture that helps emphasize the fact that what we’re watching unfold is not necessarily the story of how two transmasc people in one of the biggest cities in the country try and eventually overcome their outsider positions in society. In fact, most of the time, you can’t even tell they’re in San Francisco. It feels like it could be any city anywhere, including “middle America,” and that underscores the class and gender marginalization of these characters. Unlike many of the queer and trans narratives we’re given right now, theirs is not a story of going from bad circumstances to better ones (or to death). Instead, Shy and Valentine (and Billie, to a certain extent) are just people existing on the margins of society doing whatever they can to survive. Sometimes, they fail miserably at it. But even when they fail, they’re still able suck some joy, pleasure, and humor out of the simple fact that they’re still living. Their gender identity and class status is never discussed in explicit terms, save for one moment when Shy declares he’s “tired of being poor.” It’s not a cautionary tale or one we’re really supposed to learn from, either. It’s a snapshot of what survival often looks like for people who are trying to make due with the scraps that are thrown at them from the oppressive systems that govern our world.

In addition, the film features what is, possibly, the kindest, most gentle portrayal of mental health issues and psychosis that I’ve ever seen in a piece of art created for a wide audience. Valentine isn’t just allowed to live. He’s romantically loved, sexually desired, treated with respect and care, and he’s seen as a person who is worthy of that treatment without anyone feeling as if he is a burden or a responsibility. Shy and Billie are never “putting up with” Valentine. They are simply moving through life with him. And this film was made before conversations about mental illness and its impacts on both the individuals who experience it and the people around them were part of our mainstream conversations.

At its core, though, By Hook or By Crook is about brotherhood. It’s about the unlikely connections people make through the unfortunate and unfair conditions of their lives. It’s about how those connections can blossom into something much brighter and more beautiful than they could ever imagine. That’s what makes that first encounter between Shy and Valentine so crucial, it’s why the camera rests so hard on their eyes locking. You can see the wheels of their minds turning as they realize there’s something that connects the two of them. In this case, it’s their gender nonconformity and that’s part of what makes this film so special but that wasn’t the only thing that intersected between them. The two of them don’t have other close friendships, their families aren’t in their lives anymore, they’re broke as hell, and, despite the little triumphs they’re able to find, they’re both sad in ways that only these two kinds of men can really understand. While it doesn’t seem like either of them are really looking for anything outside of what’s needed to live until the next day, that moment they share on the ground binds them to each other. They don’t yet fully understand the reasons why, but they don’t deny it. They take on the challenge of not only exploring that connection but of building it in the ways they know how to.

Brotherhood isn’t any better or worse than any other kind of bond — and, really, it’s not gendered to me — but it is different. In the film, we don’t see Shy and Valentine’s relationship develop through a long series of conversations or through their experiences together. They’re just there for each without any questions asked, ready to fight, scheme, or love their ways through whatever happens together or separately. They act in unlikely and poorly planned service to one another, and they don’t expect reciprocity on the spot. They’re quiet together, they’re loud together, they make inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, they fumble through taking care of themselves and each other, and, most crucially, they believe in the bond that brought them together in the first place. There’s an understanding between Shy and Valentine that they’re not perfect or even very stable people and they can’t be perfect friends. What they can be, though, is there. There for the bad and the good, there for the disappointments and the ecstasy, there for figuring shit out when the system rears its ugly head and tries to destroy one of them.

I don’t think I’m a Shy or a Valentine — I exist somewhere in the space between and around them. But By Hook or By Crook is the first film where I felt the brotherhood I’ve been mercifully granted through my friendships and experiences was truly understood. I didn’t get what I wanted and needed from my biological brothers, even now. I’ve chanced upon those bonds elsewhere many times over the course of my life. That’s the magic of By Hook or By Crook and the magic of brotherhood — you don’t always expect it and you don’t always choose it. What you do choose is what happens after it comes to you. For Shy and Valentine, they chose to keep living with each other and because of each other. Brotherhood can crack us open to possibilities we never envisioned — it did that for Shy, it did that for Valentine, and it’s done that many times for me.

By Hook or By Crook is available to rent.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.


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