Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Red Without Blue - A Review

“All happy families are like all other happy families,” Tolstoy wrote, and “all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” Red Without Blue is a 2007 documentary illustrating that opening line to Anna Karenina in spades.

Mark and Alex Farley are beautiful identical twin boys who, they and their parents all agree, lived an almost idyllic childhood. (Red and blue are the colors they are dressed in as kids to tell them apart.) Somehow, however, things go wrong. Jenny, their mother and Scott, their father, grow apart, Scott loses his job and hides the fact, and he and Jenny divorce when the twins are eleven. The twins get into drugs and unhealthy sex and attempt suicide. Both boys not only turn out to be gay, but Alex decides she is Clair and starts living as a woman. Mark changes his name to Oliver, complains his sister hates him, and Scott looks on in despair and weeps.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The documentary takes us through the misery and out. Mark Oliver finds love in a boy named David, studies art in Prague and becomes a successful artist in San Francisco. Clair graduates from Sarah Lawrence, has her surgery and looks forward to a new and happy life. Jenny finds love in another woman, and the four family members find their way back to each other with sympathy and understanding.

If this were fiction, the story would flop for stretching the limits of credulity. But it isn’t fiction, and you watch with ever increasing fascination as the Farley family make their way through the darkness. In time, you realize you are watching them reveal the possibility of victory of the human spirit over the vicissitudes of nature and its tendency to hand out life challenges without rhyme, reason or a sense of fairness.

There are missing pieces. Where the desire for drugs comes from is not clear. “I didn’t know we had cocaine in Missoula, Montana,” Jenny says. She also assumes her neglect of the boys at a crucial age because of her divorce had a lot to do with it. But, perhaps because the twins seem to be committed to avoiding blame of either parent, this is not brought out as cause and effect. Why the boys needed to be separated for eight years is also not made clear.

Because the film was more than three years in the making, we have the advantage of seeing the evolution of thought. "I don't think of them as my children. They're young people I know," Jenny says at one point. In the end, she speaks of needing to have her children back with her and undergoes a transition from mourning the loss of Alex to seeing what she loved about Alex still alive in Clair. At each turn, another question arises: How do twins find the balance between intimacy and personal independence? What happens to a “person” when he or she switches genders? Is gender an objective reality after all? Is homosexuality really identifiable in a small child?

This is the most sympathetic portrayal of a transgendered identity I have seen yet. Clair approaches the sex change with considerable caution and a great deal of intelligence. Her conviction carries her ultimately loving family with her and brings them back together. You root for Mark and want to see his relationship prosper and continue. You root for Jenny and take on face value her claim she is not homosexual, all the while wondering how it could be that so much homosexuality (homophilia, possibly, in Jenny’s case) could show up in one family.

When all is said and done the power of the documentary washes over you. People you might not find sympathetic, necessarily, you find you have come to care for. You are left with a sense that no matter how familiar you think you are with the human condition, there are still surprises. And you have to wonder what drives people to throw hurdles in the path of other people simply trying to play the game of life with the cards they are dealt.

Written and directed by a trio of first-time filmmakers, Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, and Todd Sills, this is a story that rewards in the telling and in the recall. A must-see.

Winner of the following awards so far:
• Michael J. Berg Jury Award at the San Francisco LGBT film festival for Best Documentary
• Audience Choice Award at both the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival, and the
• Inside Out Toronto Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
• Jury Awards at The Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and the
• Athens International Film and Video Festival.

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