A documentary about a 10-year-old transgender girl who finds acceptance and empowerment in the company of a queer roller derby collective.From the blurb
First five minutes
We learn that the main protagonists of the film, Crystal a 10 year old boy, and his overpowering mother Karen, live in Timmins, a small industrial city in Ontario, Canada. It’s winter and the snow lies thick on the ground. Crystal gets off the yellow school bus and greets a dog as a voiceover of a female voice – the mother Karen – intones that Crystal has not played sports for 3 years because he is not allowed on the girls team, and that fellow school children regularly ask if he still has his genitals. Karen also tells us that he first mentioned suicide aged 5 and found him trying to clip his penis off with nail clippers. When she tried to talk to him about things, he would scream, ‘I want to die,’ she alleges.
Karen has another son, a few years younger, who we see having a tantrum. She says this child is also being bullied at school. Crystal tells us that he has been called fat, a faggot and a whore. The mum, still in voiceover, tells us that once he was thrown into a large dumpster, the camera zoning into the same, just in case we don’t know what one looks like. Mum begins to cry and the opening credits roll. Tense music plays. More snowy scenes from Timmins, emphasising its rough stark industrial aesthetic. This isn’t a cosmopolitan place.
Finally we see Karen on camera. She tells us she is a single mother on a low income and that in the past people have reported her to social services.
This is all in the first five minutes.
Introducing the roller derby and team Vagine Regime
Like other documentaries in this genre, the film is really about the mother and has the added dimension of providing a justification for mixed sexed sports. The mother is on a roller derby team (which appears to be mainly men) and she tells us she was drawn to the sport because it was inclusive of queer and transgender people. Roller derby is a full contact sport which appears to be 90 percent tackling, it has no governing body, and the rules of the game aren’t clear cut. I hesitate to denounce it as not a real sport, given my all-round ignorance on such things, but let’s just point out there’s no ball, and leave it at that.
Team Vagine Regime are based in LA and have only ‘queer women’ on team. The crux of the narrative is that Karen wrote to captain of the team about Crystal’s predicament (so not a letter from Crystal himself). Again in voiceover Karen tells us this time that Crystal had been telling her since he was three years old that he was really a girl. ‘She was having accidents in her pants,’ she says and repeats the allegation about threatening suicide aged 5. Karen took him to a doctor who suggested he wear a skirt. In a separate clip, Crystal appears to confirm that wearing the skirt was ‘the first time I was really happy’ – yet we don’t hear the question that he was responding to. It appears his social transition was imposed aged 7.
Not adding up
Karen again tells us that Crystal hasn’t been able to play sport for three years, but we deduct from what she says that he hasn’t been stopped from playing with boys by the school, it’s more that she only wants him to play with girls. She tells us that she campaigned for him to use the toilets and changing room of his choice, which seems to suggest that the school had already capitulated to her demands (this is Tranada after all). Of course, this contradiction in the story is completely ignored by the filmmaker. No confirmation from the school is sought, we meet no school friends or other people who corroborate this story.
Whilst reading out the letter she wrote and posted on the internet about Crystal, Karen gets teary-eyed again. All Crystal wants is some transgender role models, she says, and boy roller derby has a ton.
The film jumps around a series of talking heads, adults who all live in metropolitan liberal areas in the US, and back to Crystal every now and then, trying to weave these disparate strands together. His world is a million miles apart from theirs.
The talking heads
Lisa and ‘Fifi’
We aren’t told until much later that Fifi is in fact a man, but we might guess given the shoulder width. I’m not going to lie though, he passes pretty well on camera. It begins as quite a long segment about how Fifi and Lisa fell in love at roller derby. Fifi tells us that playing roller derby has given him the confidence to be a bigger than average woman, so much so, that he is now doing strength training.
When the reveal moment comes, Fifi tells us that he often finds himself calling himself Zack and refers to himself by male pronouns in his head.
Guess what? Fifi, who has shoulders as wide as a door, wins 6 points no problem at the start of a a match against the Caulk Suckers (groan). That is something I genuinely did not think I would see.
We learn that roller derby players also enjoy performing and watching burlesque. We watch two women with stick-on moustaches make out with each other. Given that the whole film hangs off Crystal’s transformation, we wonder quite how he will find this empowering, given he presumably doesn’t want a moustache.
Roller store in New York
We meet a lesbian couple who run a roller store in New York. First we see them joking about how in a generation’s time there will be a bunch of pensionable women who love ‘pussy’. One of them coaches a junior roller derby team and the teen girls regularly visit their shop and find it a place where they can openly discuss issues about being a young woman.
OMG, the team’s coach, tells us that she read Karen’s open letter about Crystal and how inspiring she found it.
Another lesbian couple
We then meet another lesbian couple, this time in San Diego, California. Previously Summer was a Mormon and had gotten married at 20 and had two children. She becomes tearful talking about her relationship with her girlfriend who she met at roller derby. The Vagine Regime is a sisterhood, she tells us.
Later we are treated to an excruciating treasure hunt where Summer’s girlfriend picks up clues to find Summer and a final tearful marriage proposal whilst warm fuzzy music plays.
The obvious AGP
In Los Angeles we meet Emmazing Grace, a trans-identified man, as he puts on make-up. He provides the filmmakers of clips from his creepy vlog dating back to 2009. He has his castration surgery approved and his girlfriend enthusiastically tells us she has ‘medical training’ so she can look after him. He tells us that being on testosterone blockers has rendered him weaker than his female teammates.
Later we see him the night before surgery. He’s very ‘excited’ and says so, many times. He admits though that he doesn’t know whether it will really make him happy.
We see him again post surgery, after the bandages have come off. He’s very ‘happy’. It will take six months for the numbness to resolve. He rings his father to tell him that he has a new job. ‘Okay,’ comes the very guarded response from the dad, and ‘good luck to you Greg’.
We meet Mister Sister, who is a referee for roller derby. She is a trans-identified female who has taken testosterone, but who doesn’t want to lose her vagina because she ‘loves it’ too much. We learn she never knew her father, was sexually abused aged 7, and again when she served in the military from the ages of 18-23 and decided to transition to avoid the possibility of further abuse.
We also meet her girlfriend Shannon who seems madly in love with her who tells us about how they met. ‘At the time I was a straight woman,’ says Shannon. ‘And she still still is a straight woman,’ retorts Mister Sister. ‘Yes,’ Shannon says dutifully. Oops!
We see a video call with a woman from Vagine Regime with Karen and Crystal. She informs them she’s going to raise money so that she can get him over to the LA to play roller derby with a junior team. To camera she becomes tearful talking about roller derby and her plan to sell raffle tickets to help Crystal get to LA.
Roller derby convention
Just like other team sports in America, roller derby also has its cheerleaders, who call themselves ‘queerleaders’. Their chant is: That’s alright, that’s okay, we’re going to turn you gay someday! A huge sporty-looking bloke tells us how amazing it all is and how much he enjoys ‘queerleading’.
Scenes at the party show people in drag, nudity, drunkenness, twerking, women dressed as vaginas and simulated cunninglingus when one woman kisses a ‘vagina’.
Crystal’s trip to LA
Prior to going Crystal has his hair dyed purple by his mum’s friend. On the pitch Crystal is clucked over by not only his mother, but by every woman who wants to get her face on camera. Karen confidently tells everyone that Crystal has no confidence. Crystal (who is a really nice kid by the way) is worried that after such a long period of physical inertia he isn’t up to scratch. He’s also unused to LA weather, and his face is completely flushed by heat. After three years of being told he is a girl, and presumably being told he should like girly things, he is facing the reality of falling hard on concrete.
We see Crystal lightly shoulder tackle a girl – who goes flying. One of the girls tells him he is way strong. He scores 32 points at his first match. It demonstrates everything we know about developmental differences between the sexes; boys are intrinsically stronger even prior to puberty. Crystal’s ‘triumph’ allows Karen and the filmmaker to claim their victory; roller derby has saved Crystal, confirmed by him saying it was ‘the best day of my life’.
Longest credits ever
The closing credit sequence was eight minutes long, which speaks to the pomposity of the project.
Literally no one offers any original insights into the phenomenon of roller derby or sports in general, and the call for making women’s sports inclusive is made without any serious exploration. That a 10 year old boy was made the centre of this queerfest is weird and uncomfortable and the talking heads presented simply have nothing in common with him. Being ‘queer’ does not automatically make a subject interesting.
There is no discussion of puberty blockers and I suspect that is because in 2014 people had not yet regarded this as an acceptable treatment. Let’s hope Crystal escaped that fate.
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