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Different for Girls
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by Rob Gonsalves

"A 'Transamerica' precursor, with the expected flaws."
3 stars

Two people, once schoolboy acquaintances, meet again randomly after sixteen years. Paul (Rupert Graves) is a scrappy motorcycle courier, who likes to drink and play his music loud and stay just a few steps ahead of his creditors. Karl is now Kim (Steven Mackintosh), a post-operative transsexual, who has a sedate job, a tasteful apartment, and many quiet evenings at home.

A movie about how these two get to know each other and fall in love would be a fascinating comedy-drama, but Different for Girls isn't that movie. It seems almost spooked by its own subject -- it keeps wandering off into irrelevant subplots, and about halfway through, the narrative goes to a place we don't really care about. At one point, Kim accuses Paul of not dealing with his feelings about her; the movie doesn't deal with it, either.

Back when Kim was Karl, he was an easy target for ruffian homophobes, who taunted him in the shower; Paul stood up for him, though we never see the two of them in any other context (aside from a class photo where they seem to be exchanging an electric look), so at first we're confused as to whether they're friends or lovers. (The actors playing them as teens look nothing like the adult Kim and Paul, even allowing for Kim's change -- in fact, the teenage Karl looks more feminine than Kim.) Meeting again as thirtysomething adults, Paul and Kim don't really know what to make of each other; it's as if they had no history together. Yet they seem to be attracted to each other -- Paul to Kim's vulnerability and level-headedness (her life turned out a whole lot more orderly than his did), Kim to Paul's raffish machismo hiding an essentially kind heart.

This all might still seem interesting, but you haven't seen what the moviemakers do with it. Director Richard Spence treats the material as little better than a sensitive sitcom -- or at least one of those fluffy British comedies that wouldn't impress anyone in America if they didn't have British accents. Screenwriter Tony Marchant has done some technical homework -- he gives Kim a speech about how hormones have changed her body (with Paul hanging on every word) -- but didn't he talk to any post-op transsexuals? If so, didn't he come away with anything other than "My breasts developed first"? Marchant also puts the plot through some synthetic spins: a stupidly drunk Paul waves his dick around in public and gets arrested, and Kim gets locked up too (for "interfering with arrest"). The movie becomes about how Kim will work up the nerve to break out of stealth mode and bail Paul out of trouble, but from what we can see he's not worth the hassle. Paul can be sweet, but he also has a temper and does stupid things when drunk, and I couldn't help thinking that many women are charmed by guys like this until a year or two into the marriage, when drunken temper turns into abuse.

The character of Kim is another problem. Tony Marchant may have learned how men become women, but he hasn't really figured out why, and he never gets inside Kim's head. She remains pretty opaque, despite Steven Mackintosh's intelligent and compassionate performance. Mackintosh, it must be said, is at best androgynously feminine in the Jamie Lee Curtis mold; in softer daylight, Kim is fairly passable, but in darker scenes the shadows are unkind to Mackintosh's angular features. (He looks most womanly when he smiles, which isn't often.)

Still, Mackintosh does what he can with an unwritten role. Perhaps in reaction to the usual stereotypes about transgendered people -- either they're psychos or sluts -- Kim has been made a professional woman (she writes verse for greeting cards), a tasteful dresser, a sensible and cautious person; in other words, she's been made very dull. (Mackintosh gives some of Kim's lines an angry, standoffish spin that suggests more past pain and heartbreak than the script ever explores.) The only thing interesting about her is that she's had sex-reassignment surgery, and we don't hear very much at all about that. The movie, like Paul, is unavoidably prurient about Kim's body, in a tactful way that doesn't redeem the prurience. Kim eventually shows Paul everything, and though it leads to a genuinely tender and erotic lovemaking scene, Kim's nude scene becomes completely about Steven Mackintosh's fake breasts -- instead of feeling Kim's mixture of shyness and pride, we're looking for the seams in the makeup.

Different for Girls staggers around, keeping its lovers apart as in any conventional romantic comedy, adding pointless subplots about Kim's sister's husband (Neil Dudgeon), an infertile military man who seems to be in the movie just to prove, as Roger Ebert pointed out, that the inability to reproduce doesn't make a man less of a man -- or, by extension, a woman less of a woman. (Intellectually, you can connect this to Kim, who also cannot conceive or bear children, but since she never mentions wanting children it seems a moot point.) At only a few points do Kim and Paul actually sit across from each other and talk like human beings; the bulk of their romance is dashed off in montages in which Kim learns to ride Paul's motorcycle, and so on. We're entirely unconvinced of their love for each other -- at best, they seem mutually fascinated by one another, like two people from different countries bonding briefly over a shared taste in music -- so it's tough to swallow the ending, in which Kim gives up her anonymity as a woman for good so that Paul can get a quick thousand pounds to retrieve his bike.

Apparently they'll live happily ever after, with Paul protecting Kim from bigots, getting drunk, and taking her for long rides on the bike bought with her privacy.

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originally posted: 12/25/06 10:46:59
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  12-Sep-1997 (R)
  DVD: 25-Jan-2000

  10-Apr-1998 (15)
  DVD: 02-May-2001

  N/A (MA)

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