TIFF 2023: Trans People Deserve Better Than “Unicorns” and “National Anthem”

Drew Burnett Gregory is back at the Toronto International Film Festival for Autostraddle! Follow along with her coverage of all the LGBTQ+ films at the prestigious festival.


We are in an abundant era of trans cinema, but you wouldn’t know it based on the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an attempt at inclusion. Three documentaries — I Am Sirat, Summer Qamp, and Orlando, My Political Biography — present tender portraits of a wide cross-section of trans people. They’re well done, even if they share a simplicity that aims to educate a cis audience rather than connect with a trans one.

The narrative films are worse. The best, if it counts, is Solo, a powerful drama set in the world of drag that has zero trans characters and no actual drag artists. The worst is Summer of Ecstasy, a movie about a nonbinary investment banker (played by a cis actor) that includes an array of misguided tropes. The most disappointing is Close to You, Elliot Page’s return to cinema, a take on the trans person reconnecting with their family story that’s a blunt mix of exposition and melodrama. And then there’s Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins, a film I was spared from watching because I didn’t realize it had a trans character — it’s supposedly very bad and could’ve been even worse.

But the most revealing trans films of the festival are Unicorns and National Anthem — two films that share strengths and weaknesses. Both films are beautifully shot, but they use these images to tell a story we’ve seen before: A cis man meets a transfeminine person who forces him to confront his presumptions. This storyline came to prominence on-screen in the early 90s with The Crying Game and M. Butterfly. Since then, it has continued to dominate transfeminine representation. Sometimes it’s been done well (Pose, Joyland) and sometimes it’s been done very, very poorly (Anything, Port Authority).

While neither film at TIFF is a disaster, their middling takes on this tired story reveal its limits. If the most interesting thing about a protagonist is that he’s fucking a trans woman, why not just make a movie about the trans woman? I promise the most interesting thing about her isn’t that she’s fucking some guy.

***
Unicorns, directed by Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd, at least grants its transfeminine character her own storyline and inner life. But first it introduces us to Luke, a white single dad who works as a mechanic. One night he stumbles upon a queer South Asian nightclub and immediately falls for sexy drag queen Aysha. He doesn’t realize she’s not a cis woman until after they’ve made out. There’s a horrifying montage of him realizing she has an Adam’s Apple and soon enough he’s pulling an Ace Ventura and wiping the kiss off his tongue.

He flees to his car, and Aysha inexplicably chases him into the empty street. This is just the first of many times Aysha will put herself at risk — something that could be an interesting character detail if she wasn’t otherwise shown to be someone very concerned about her safety. She will later show up at his work and ask him to drive her to gigs. This is a necessity for the plot but makes no sense in the context of him being a cis straight man with a vaguely threatening aura. Not only is she putting herself at risk; she’s putting her entire community at risk bringing this man into her queer spaces.

To the film’s credit, she does have those queer spaces. Even though she’s still closeted with her family and presents as a boy at her retail job, she has a lot of other queer people and trans women in her life. Many cis-created films and TV shows about trans people isolate the trans character, so this portrayal of community was a welcome change. Unfortunately, it’s undermined by the film’s most traumatic turn that presents a bizarro world where transfeminine people are at risk of violence from other trans women rather than, say, the strange straight man they’ve employed.

Jason Patel as Aysha and Ben Hardy as Luke have a lovely chemistry together. The movie really works when it’s just Luke driving around Aysha as their relationship grows. There’s a version of this film that might not be revolutionary but at least allowed these two disparate individuals to connect in a way that feels grounded in some semblance of reality. There’s a version of the film that doesn’t rely on forced trauma to advance the plot.

The film has its heart in the right place, but it’s too disconnected from the lived experience of a person like Aysha. The filmmakers are fascinated by her relationship to what they deem normal — her traditional family, this straight man — and the double life they’ve created for her. It’s not even clear if Aysha is meant to be a cis male drag queen or a trans woman. Of course, these lines can be blurred, but she’s not portrayed in a way that feels grounded in a realistic complexity. Patel, who is himself a femme queer man, seems to be playing Aysha as a drag queen. The writing seems to think she’s a semi-closeted trans woman — or, worst of all, doesn’t understand there’s a difference.

I wish the filmmakers saw Aysha less through Luke’s eyes and more through the eyes of her trans best friend. She’s not exotic; she’s not a challenge; she’s just a person searching for herself.

***
National Anthem, directed by photographer Luke Gilford, presents a more positive portrayal of queer community — but has an even flatter male protagonist.

Dylan is a shy construction worker in his early twenties who spends all his time working and taking care of his little brother and alcoholic mom. He doesn’t say much but we know he’s not like other boys because his coworkers tease him for not liking when they talk about pussy.

He gets a job working on a queer ranch and immediately falls for a trans woman named Sky. We first see her wearing a flowy dress riding a horse. She gravitates to Dylan, flirting and pulling him out of his solitude. Rather than dismiss Sky as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I’ll speak more bluntly: She’s an empty vessel of a character who exists only for Dylan’s growth and projections. Early in the film, he asks, “Why do you care about me? I’m pretty boring.” It’s a flash of self-awareness the three male writers have her quickly shut down.

Sky is played by Eve Lindley, who does everything she can to find life in her character. She’s beautiful and charming and does drugs and has group sex, and it makes sense why Dylan falls for her. But there’s no amount of acting talent that explains why Sky falls for Dylan. It’s especially frustrating to watch because Lindley previously played one of the best examples of this trope. On the underrated limited series Dispatches from Elsewhere, Lindley was a Manic Pixie Trans Girl to Jason Segel’s sad sack cis man and actually had a real character. Every story can be told… if it’s told well.

The film is at its best when it explores Dylan’s own queerness. Whether in terms of sexuality or gender or both, it seems likely that Dylan is not a cishet interloper but a queer person getting a first taste of community. This feels like the intended arc and would be far more successful if Dylan was played by a trans actor. Instead, Charlie Plummer seems lost in Dylan’s queerness. When he gets on stage to perform a number in drag, it feels awkward more than it does liberating.

Like Unicorns, the film’s climactic trauma is suffered by the transfeminine character. At least both films spare us death or rape, but it’s still uncomfortable to watch these characters suffer on behalf of someone else’s story.

Gilford based the film on his photo series centered on queer rodeo. As a queer man, it’s clear Gilford’s connection to this community is personal. I just wish he’d found a different story to tell within this setting.

Mason Alexander Park as another resident of the queer commune is given even less of a character than Lindley. If Sky exists for Dylan’s masturbation fantasies, Park’s character exists just to give Dylan pep talks. I can imagine a different movie where Park and Lindley are the ones who have a relationship and that feels far truer to what Gilford hoped to accomplish.

There are worse things than watching beautiful montages of queer people in the desert set to Angel Olsen. I just wish the movie had committed to being a trans Zabriskie Point and dropped the forced plotting.

***
On-screen and in life, there’s a false narrative that trans women are tricking men into having sex with us. Watching Aysha and Sky aggressively pursue these boring men, I realized this is an offshoot of that same narrative.

Even the cis people who don’t see us as traps are still comforted by the idea that trans women are the ones doing the chasing. They can’t fathom the Lukes of the world choosing to watch a trans dancer. They can’t fathom the Dylans seeking us out on a queer commune. They imagine we are forcing ourselves on people when they themselves are proof of the opposite. To paraphrase Mariah Carey and Regina George, “Why are you so obsessed with us?”

Whether it’s to fuck or to make movies, cis people are the ones doing the chasing. Cis people might not share their lusts publicly; cis people who make movies about us might do a bad job. But there is no shortage of cis people who want to own a piece of us — our bodies, our stories, their idea of our stories.

The good news is we’re telling our stories too. I’ll say it again: we are in an abundant era for trans cinema. There are low-key indies like Mutt, Something You Said Last Night, and Summer Solstice. There are dreamy fantasias like L’immensita, Death and Bowling, and Playland. There are documentaries pushing the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking like Framing Agnes, Kokomo City, Queenmaker, and The Stroll. There are auteurs who have broken into arthouse film culture like Isabel Sandoval and Jane Schoenbrun. There are trans filmmakers who have created incredible short form work who will continue to amaze in that medium and probably move on to features like Tourmaline, Rain Valdez, Nava Mau, and Nyala Moon. There are so many more trans filmmakers in features, in shorts, in television who are telling our stories and telling them well. And, just like there are cis people who do share their romantic desires publicly, there have been movies made by cis directors that are great like The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, Dos Estaciones, Bad Things, and Alice Júnior. Some cis people actually can see our humanity.

We don’t have to settle for mediocrity. We don’t have to settle for being the catalyst in someone else’s story. I want nothing less than abundance. Let’s demand it.


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 385 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you as always for this amazing article. I want to stress what you said, cis people do the chasing. All my trans female friends got chased aggressively shortly after transition, by strangers online, and to an even higher degree, by cis men they knew, like old school friends. Everybody seemed to jump on them.These chasers were not shy blossoms. I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon before, and it was pretty astounding. And aldo immediately explaining why trans women need protection and shelters.
    In the olden days, trans groups had secret telephone numbers, not because for fear of violence, but because they were overrun by chasers if the number was public. The same was true for intersex groups.
    Returning to your festival critique, it’s also interesting that these films are all about trans women, and no trans men in sight.

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