Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Tuesday

7

July 2020

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Jack & Yaya is a touching testament to the power of friendship

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The toxic nature of homophobia can have an especially profound effect on LGBTQ youth, especially those of us still who are still in the closet. It’s hard to imagine prosperity in a world that so tolerates intolerance as the not-so-distant past once permitted. Companionship is a valued commodity particularly to those who know all too well what it’s like to be othered.

The documentary Jack & Yaya centers itself around a lifelong friendship between two transgender people who found a sense of belonging with each other, well before either knew they wanted to transition. Directors Jen Bagley & Mary Hewey chronicle their journeys to self-realization in a touching, quiet narrative.

In many ways, the film feels aimed at the relatives of trans people, especially those who might be struggling with the concept of gender identity. Christina (Yaya) in particular faced some challenges in acceptance, even from a gay brother, demonstrating the complexities of LGBTQ tolerance. Jack’s extended family are a treat to watch, exuberant in their embrace of him. There’s a bit of a “looks can be deceiving” angle at play, as many of Jack’s extended family look like the kind of folk you’d expect to see more at a Trump rally than a Pride parade.

The film is pretty light on conflict or drama, the kind of tension that tends to drive most narratives. Given how often transgender narratives are sensationalized in the media, this approach is hardly unwelcome. Bagley and Hewey keep the focus grounded in reality, which itself offers some moments that should remind everyone of the struggles that so many in the LGBTQ community face.

In some ways, the film does focus a bit too much on the transition angle, an origin story that at times feels at odds with the trajectory of other trans narratives in the year 2020. Transgender people often point out that their transitions are the least interesting elements of their identity. For those of us who wish to see trans narratives move beyond the rudimentary nature of transition itself, Jack & Yaya does leave a bit on the table to explore.

Transgender people often feel alone, afraid to live life as ourselves. Jack & Yaya is a touching narrative that celebrates the vital relationships we make across our journeys. LGBTQ rights have come a long way since the time when Jack & Yaya were little, but their story serves as an important reminder for the challenges that too many in the community still face.

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Tuesday

7

July 2020

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Relic is a chilling slow burn

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For a film like Relic, dementia is a natural fit for the horror genre, a real life terror that anyone familiar with the disease can understand. To lose yourself is bad enough, without all the external considerations of a supernaturally charged terror. Set in an eerie house in Australia, Relic stakes out its territory in the kind of frights that naturally creep up on you, because in a way, they could.

The film follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and they check in on Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly woman suffering from dementia living alone in a dreary home. Edna has been missing for a few days, though reappears unexpectedly without much of a clue where she’s been. The house holds secrets of both a personal nature and those of the more supernatural variety.

The acting is superb. Nevin steals the show as Edna, a resilient woman reluctant to be treated like an invalid. She’s stubborn while still being sympathetic, a kind of persistent pride that lingers even in the face of her illness. Mortimer and Heathcote are quite good as well, layering the horror in a compelling family drama.

Making her directorial debut in addition to writing duties, Natalie Erika James crafts a rich narrative that moves at a careful pace. James frames her shots in a way that lets the house itself function as a character in its own right, a kind of claustrophobic environment that reeks of decay, the perfect setting for a horror film. James makes great use of the lighting, dim, creepy, and bleak.

Relic is a meticulously crafted slow burn. James has a superb sense of pacing that keeps tensions high. The film essentially divides itself into three acts, making quick work of its runtime of just under 90 minutes. You feel like every scene serves a specific purpose, without the need to explain every last detail.

As a horror film, Relic falls more under the category of creepy than outright scary. It’s the kind of narrative that crawls under your skin more than making you jump out of it. James has made a bit of an esoteric type of film, one that encourages critical thinking well after the credits have stopped rolling.

Relic is a breath of fresh air in the genre. In the past, it may have seemed absurd for a film to give such a meaty role to an elderly woman like Nevin. The female-led production produced a well-crafted delight for horror fans, one that’s perfect for today’s shelter-at-home climate.

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Monday

6

July 2020

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Money Plane is a complete disaster

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There is no single element that a film needs to fit the broad definition of “good.” Trainwrecks like The Room and Sharknado are entertaining despite the absence of competent acting, writing, or directing. Bad can in fact be, good.

Fitting for its setting, Money Plane circles around the runway of this territory. Written and directed by Andrew Lawrence, youngest of the Lawrence brothers trio, the film firmly squares itself in B movie territory, albeit with an impressive roster of recognizable faces, including Adam Copeland, Kelsey Grammer, Denise Richards, Thomas Jane, as well as Andrew’s brothers Joey and Matthew.

The film centers around the efforts of Jack Reese (Copeland) and his team to rob the titular “money plane,” an aircraft of debauchery for high-stakes gamblers. Reese follows the orders of Darius Grouch the 3rd, also known as “The Rumble” (Grammer), who blackmails him by threatening his wife, Sarah (Richards). The film mostly centers itself around the heist, both on the plane and through some action sequences on the ground.

Money Plane is sunk mostly through two major issues. Copeland is absolutely terrible in the lead role. He isn’t a bad actor, as his time on Vikings and as Edge in the WWE have shown, but he looks absolutely bored out of his mind in the film. Copeland delivers a wooden, muted performance that’s painful to watch. His obvious disdain for the role can’t help but permeate to the audience.

The other big issue lies with the script. Lawrence is an abysmal writer with no ability to craft dialogue that any human being would actually say. Too many sequences come across as so bizarre that you actually feel uncomfortable watching, as if a five-year-old wrote the script based off how he might think grown-ups talk when he’s not in the room.

The script may not have been as big of a problem if Copeland wasn’t so bad in the lead role. Grammer and Lawrence’s brothers fare much better, putting forth outlandish performances that are among the film’s only highlights. One can forgive the low budget nature of the set, a supposedly luxury plane featuring a poker table that looks like it was purchased at Walmart (complete with cup holders), but if the lead actor isn’t having any fun, it’s hard to care.

Money Plane could have been a fun disaster of a film, but Copeland’s obvious boredom sucks all the air out of the cockpit. Lawrence assembled a moderately compelling cast, but the film is too much of a mess to make for a pleasant ride. A tragic shame.

 

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Tuesday

30

June 2020

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Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche are spectacular in The Truth

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Conflict, especially of the family variety, has a tendency to produce widely different interpretations of the events in question. The Truth (original French title: La Vérité) centers its narrative around a mother-daughter relationship, one that never tries to play its drama down the middle. Truth is more complicated than mere matters of right and wrong.

Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is an accomplished French actress in the twilight of her career. Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) comes to visit from America for the launch of her mother’s memoirs, filled with the kinds of fiction that Fabienne made a career of depicting on screen. Lumir is filled with grievances toward her mother, exacerbated by the stalled acting career of her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke).

Rarely interested in revisiting the past with her daughter, Fabienne instead concerns herself with feelings of resentment toward Manon (Manon Clavel), her much younger costar in her latest film. Manon reminds Fabienne of herself and her stardom, now fading, bringing a sense of introspection that those with big egos tend not to enjoy. Manon is less of a rival than an all-too-obvious indicator of the fleeting power of age.

Deneuve is in peak form, portraying Fabienne with an overwhelming sense of gravitas perfect for the narrative. The Truth is the rare film about fame that works. Deneuve isn’t just playing a superstar, she is one, honing in on the pains of time in a heartbreakingly authentic fashion. Fabienne is an awful person, yet the audience can feel for a woman who’s obviously struggling to grapple with the consequences of her life’s decisions.

Binoche brings plenty of nuance to Lumir, perfectly illustrating the complicated relationships that many children feel toward their parents. She gives deference to Fabienne without rewriting history, revisting old scars not to reopen old wounds, but to try and heal. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda clearly recognizes the assets he has in his two female leads, crafting scenes that let them duke it out in minimalistic settings.

Kore-eda relishes the messy emotions that families can bring out of each other. The sad moments in The Truth are often buoyed by humor, a fantastic script. At times, it feels like watching a stageplay and at others like you’ve walked in on a family feud.

Kore-eda has a gift for presenting conflicting perspectives while recognizing the almost-irrelevant nature of conclusions. Human relationships are not finite entities. Closure is a concept often deceptively deployed in film, for endings hardly exist in quite the same manner in reality.

The film juggles its many subplots pretty well. As Hank, Hawke isn’t given much to do, a role that isn’t quite reflective of his starpower, but fitting for a narrative that focuses the bulk of its attention on its mother-daughter dynamic. More Hawke would probably not be too helpful for the story at hand.

The Truth is a powerful narrative reflective of the talent involved. Kore-eda is one of the best directors currently working. Deneuve and Binoche both put forth two of the best performances of their storied careers. Fans of cinema will certainly want to check this one out.

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Sunday

28

June 2020

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We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is a compelling origin narrative

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Every superstar has an origin story. “Freestyle Love Supreme,” a comedy hip-hop improv group, brought much of the core group of the Broadway sensation Hamilton together, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and actor Christopher Jackson. Though many in the group have gone on to massive fame and fortune, the connections forged bring them back together, both as friends and performers. The documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme aims to shed light on the group whose members changed the face of Broadway.

Formed in the post-college haze of the core group in the early 00s, Freestyle Love Supreme began as a small project conducted in the basement of the Drama Book Small that eventually enjoyed a Broadway run that concluded earlier this year. Archival footage portrays the group in its early years, performing around the country and in countries such as Scotland.

The documentary is a real treat for Hamilton and Miranda superfans, showcasing the talent in their pre-fame days. It’s rare that college friends maintain such tight bonds into their 40s, but We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is a strong testament to the power of friendship. The documentary convincingly presents the case that without this improv group, there would be no In the Heights or Hamilton.

Part of the trouble with this dynamic though is the simple truth that if there was no Hamilton, there would be no documentary about Freestyle Love Supreme. Director Andrew Fried spends much of the film individually profiling the troupe’s extensive cast, not all of whom achieved superstardom. The relatively equal allotment of screentime is bound to appease the group dynamic, but as a result there are parts of the documentary that are essentially very boring for a general audience, who may be familiar more with Hamilton than the group here.

The documentary does struggle at times to balance the juicier aspects of its narrative with its general apprehension for the kind of conflict that drives storytelling. The third act of the film explores riffs in the group, as well as troupe member Utkarsh Ambudkar’s departure from the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton after issues with substance abuse. There is a lot of love in the documentary, certainly appropriate for the group’s name.

Is there too much love for a film? Probably not. The group’s infectious energy translates well to the format, even if there is some obvious ego massaging present. We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is not a documentary solely about either Miranda or Hamilton. Though at times Fried struggles to balance the pieces of his story, the film should satisfy Miranda superfans, as well as those seeking to learn more about his meteoric rise.

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Thursday

25

June 2020

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Welcome to Chechnya is a harrowing look at an underreported human rights atrocity

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We live in a time of unparalleled global acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. It has never been easier to be openly gay. The truth of that statement can make it easy to forget just how oppressive some countries are toward their own LGBTQ populations. The documentary Welcome to Chechnya shines a light on a part of the world woefully underreported by the media.

Director David France does an excellent job breaking down the complex political structure in Chechnya, a republic within the Russian Federation. Its leader Ramzan Kadyrov, portrays himself in a similar over-the-top strongman fashion as Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov enjoys great latitude from Putin to carry out human rights abuses due to his stranglehold on the region.

The documentary mostly follows the work of an underground LGBT resistance group, tasked with helping gay, lesbian, and transgender people flee the region. Despite Kadyrov’s statements to the contrary, Chechnya is home to many gay concentration camps, routinely torturing its own citizens merely for being who they are. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch.

Often utilizing hidden cameras, France gives his audience a front row seat to what life is like behind enemy lines. The film takes great care to present a three-dimensional perspective on its subjects, people who possess many of the same natural desires for companionship and community that we all hold dear, even despite their apocalyptic circumstances.

France is less effective at building a cohesive narrative. The footage he presents is extremely interesting, but as a complete product the documentary appears to be crafted largely on the fly. There are obvious limitations to what anyone could achieve under such circumstances.

The film utilizes a face-swapping technique to protect many of the identities of its subjects. The technology is quite impressive, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. The face-swapping robs some of the interviews of their potential impact, constricting the body’s ability to express emotion, already exacerbated by the language barrier.

None of the face-swapping drawbacks would be much of an issue if the necessity to protect one of the subjects hadn’t been rendered irrelevant by the events of the film, which turned him into a public figure. France’s approach to that particular reveal made the face-swapping feel like more of a gimmick, obviously not reflective of the circumstances at play. For others, the approach made perfect sense.

Welcome to Chechnya is an important wake-up call to the atrocious human rights violations in Russia, shamefully ignored by the mainstream media. Our president may not care about Putin’s oppressive regime, but decent people will be swayed by France’s powerful documentary. The advances in equality enjoyed in America should not make anyone forget how tough it is to be gay in far too many parts of the world.

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Thursday

18

June 2020

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Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn is an esoteric look at an American monster

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The stain of Roy Cohn may never be fully removed from America. A man who championed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare and shepherded Donald Trump through his early days in business, it can be hard to understate his impact on this country. The new documentary Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn sheds some light on Cohn’s troubled existence.

Instead of aiming for an overview of Cohn’s life, director Ivy Meeropol focuses her attention on a few aspects of his career and personal interactions. The prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Meeropol’s grandparents, weighs heavy on the narrative. Meeropol’s father Michael is interviewed in the film, providing an intimate perspective to the specific human cost of Cohn’s carnage.

Meeropol also includes interviews with Cohn’s cousins, who hold nothing but disdain for their relative. The intimacy that these interviews suggest is not necessarily reflected in the documentary, but Meeropol’s angle is a valuable one, especially since there are plenty of works about Cohn’s life. It would, however, be easy to watch the film without realizing the relation between Meeropol and her grandparents.

Cohn’s homosexuality frames much of the narrative. Though closeted for his entire life, Cohn’s sexuality was not exactly much of a secret to those who knew him. Meeropol points out the ample hypocrisy present in Cohn’s endless bigotry toward homosexuals, a key figure in the Lavender Scare who repeatedly denied his own HIV diagnosis even in the last few weeks of his life.

The narrative is much more contemplative about Cohn’s life than biographical. Those who know little about Cohn might feel a little lost amidst Meeropol’s scattershot pacing. She’s a director with a singular focus to carve her own niche with regard to her subject. In that regard, she most certainly succeeds.

Trump doesn’t play a very large role in the documentary, though anyone familiar with his combative nature will see obvious parallels in Cohn’s speech patterns. Meeropol includes plenty of interviews that essentially let Cohn speak for himself. His own words are pretty damning, painting the picture of a detestable man.

The documentary hardly humanizes Cohn, with the “victim” in its title referring to a specific event rather than a general sentiment. There is some sympathy to be garnered in his tragic life, but Meeropol hardly endorse this idea. Cohn is repeatedly referred to as “evil” by subjects, though his true villainy hardly needs to be outlined. In that sense, Meeropol is perhaps a bit generous toward Cohn.

Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn is a compelling film, albeit one that hardly tries to be the definitive voice on Cohn’s life. Meeropol is a skilled storyteller with a keen sense of emotion. The documentary is a must watch for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of a truly loathsome figure in American history.

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Wednesday

17

June 2020

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The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a fascinating look at the complications of filmmaking

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Peter Sellers was one of the most talented comedic actors in cinematic history. By most accounts, he was a pretty awful person in both his private and professional life. His behavior hindered or derailed many productions. The documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers examines his effect on the 1973 comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun.

Both the documentary and its subject film are directed by Peter Medak, providing an intimate perspective on the material. The Ghost of Peter Sellers occupies a fairly unique place in cinematic lore. Medak interviews several people involved with the original film, providing a rare look behind the curtains into the messy world of show business.

Medak’s great triumph lies in his ability to craft a compelling narrative that doesn’t require the audience to have seen Ghost in the Noonday Sun. After watching the documentary, you may not want to. Noonday Sun looks like a complete and utter disaster from both behind that camera and in front of it, but Medak consistently keeps things interesting, examining the Cyprus location and the various geographical issues presented.

The documentary works as both a vanity project and a valuable piece of film history. Medak is pretty open about how the film continues to haunt him, having played a major role in the downturn of his career. The narrative of the documentary essentially follows him on his path to catharsis, retracing the original film’s various disasters. Medak is an affable figure to watch, conversing with his subjects in a way that’s easy to follow.

As the title suggests, Sellers is the film’s true villain. His behavior on set is outlined in great detail, with most of the subjects backing up Medak’s account of the events. One of Sellers’ own daughters is even interviewed, providing further perspective on her troubled father.

Medak does take care to provide a balanced perspective of Sellers, an immensely complicated figure. He includes a few intimate stories of their interactions, the kind of stuff that biopics about Sellers have dramatized for years. There’s a weird sense of affection present that enriches the documentary.

It’s a fair question to wonder how much of the documentary would be different under the steward of a less biased director. Medak is quite open, but he’s also human. He takes responsibility for being the captain of the ship, not blaming everything on Sellers, but it remains difficult to pinpoint how much of his career trajectory was hindered by the film.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a real treat of a documentary perfect for Sellers diehards and film aficionados. Medak didn’t have the career he would have liked, directing few feature films after Noonday. It is quite interesting to watch him retrace the footsteps of his career and the shadow that continues to haunt him.

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Wednesday

17

June 2020

0

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Babyteeth finds solace in the quiet moments

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It can be hard to admit how little control we have over our own feelings of affection. Even harder when confronted with the reality that those around us will choose to love, often with little considerations to practical circumstance. It’s natural for humans to want to possess at least some degree of control over their surroundings.

At its core, Babyteeth is a film about control. Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a teenager battling cancer who begins a passionate love affair with a slightly older drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace). Moses has plenty of charm, but hardly possesses the demeanor suited for the particulars of Milla’s situation, a notion hardly lost on Milla’s parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). The heart wants what it wants, forcing Milla’s parents to confront their own reservations for the sake of their daughter’s sense of happiness.

Making her feature directorial debut, Shannon Murphy frames Babyteeth almost like a stage play, with the family home in suburban Australia used as the backdrop for this intimate family drama. Murphy has a strong talent for extracting suspense from each scene, keeping the dramatic tension high throughout the narrative. It’s a quiet kind of film, with Murphy’s long takes letting the emotion play out.

The acting is pretty superb. Scanlen does a great job showcasing Milla’s internal struggle between her lust for life and the realities of her illness. Her relationship with Moses follows predictable patterns but feels genuine. Mendelsohn makes great work of the dark material, a father forced out of his own myopic mindset to take care of his daughter.

Youth illness is a very sad topic, hardly the kind of material that needs to be sensationalized. Murphy manages to find a strong balance between the heavy material and the smaller, harder-to-notice joys of life. Milla is sick, but not necessarily unhappy. The film does a great job exploring the simpler joys of life, namely the interactions that make this complex journey worth it in the long run.

The film does run into some pacing issues. With a runtime of just under two hours, there’s a balance between the main narrative of Milla’s illness and the subplots of the other characters that Murphy occasionally struggles to balance. It feels like there’s more to Anna’s story in particular that gets truncated for the sake of the film’s other ambitions. Obviously two hours is a short amount of time to spend with an entire family’s issues, but the allocation of time is a bit bloated in some areas while undeveloped in others.

Babyteeth is occasionally uncomfortable to watch, a strong debut by Murphy that demonstrates her firm grasp on the complexities of human emotion. Life is short, even for the lucky ones. When faced with an uncertain future, the heart makes allowances beyond that which it might typically consider. Tragedy has a weird way of bringing people together, even those once thought diametrically opposed.

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Tuesday

9

June 2020

0

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Seahorse Handles Transgender Pregnancy with Grace and Dignity

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It would be nice to live in a world where news like Freddy McConnell’s pregnancy wouldn’t make international headlines, leading to a cascade of unfortunate headlines seeking to sensationalize his person life. McConnell, a British transgender man who gave birth to a son in 2018, is an affable individual who understandably shies away from the kind of cringeworthy tabloid coverage that follows him around. Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth seeks to tell his intimate story.

Director Jeanie Finlay captures extensive footage from McConnell’s entire pregnancy. The film does a great job explaining the unique challenges the process presents to trans men. Being off of hormones for any extended period of time is an incredibly taxing endeavor, something that McConnell handles with grace.

The artificial insemination procedures aren’t very different for trans men as for cisgender women, a reality that Finlay highlights quite well. Seahorse presents a refreshingly sober look at pregnancy, a soft-spoken effort to tone down the rhetoric surrounding transgender issues. Much of the film is pretty mundane stuff, but that’s also kind of the point. McConnell isn’t a radical figure. He’s a man who wants a family.

Seahorse does at times struggle with presenting a narrative. Much of the film’s first act centers around McConnell’s relationship with CJ, a masculine-presenting non-binary person, who was initially supposed to co-parent McConnell’s child. CJ exits the narrative early on, leaving Freddy on his own, though with support from his mother among other people.

At a certain point, Finlay stops trying to organize the steps of McConnell’s pregnancy into a cohesive story. The third act suffers from a few meandering sequences that don’t serve any broader narrative. Mundane might be the point, but it’s gets a bit tedious after a while.

Seahorse would likely have benefited from Finlay taking a broader approach to the subject. A quick Google search shows the especially toxic media environment in the UK toward transgender people. None of this is covered in the film, perhaps a missed opportunity to provide some broader context to the audience.

For his part, McConnell expresses a desire to be away from the media spotlight late in the film, a peculiar position for the subject of a documentary to be in. Finlay keeps some understandable distance toward a subject going through an emotionally taxing journey with minimal external support. It is McConnell’s journey more than than that of pregnant transgender men as a whole, a tricky tightrope that many narratives focused on marginalized groups must walk.

Seahorse is a very good film that handles its sensitive subject material with great care. There is the sense that there is plenty left on the table with regard to the subject matter. Perhaps another documentary with broader intentions to capture transphobia in Britain can expand on these themes, but if Seahorse succeeds in its primary objective, the thought might not be there to make another film on this topic.

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