52 Tuesdays is a film to be admired for existing more than loved for being. For all the tender, important work it does, it’s equally unbalanced by frantic, meaningless characterisation; while Del Herbert-James is all muted, internalised angst as trans man James, Tilda Cobham-Hervey as his teenage daughter Billie is all wide eyes and mannered diction (it’s nice that acting courses teach young actors to enunciate for the theatre where they’re more likely to get consistent work, but in television and film it reads as unnatural; I suspect it’s something Cobham-Hervey will be able to overcome with age and experience).
So while Cobham-Harvey is decent in the role, she is hardly helped by her character being overwritten to the point of no longer being recognisably human. Her own parallel exploration of social constructs is Sundance-ified almost into ridiculousness. Were it not for the realistic, lived-in performance given by Imogen Archer as her friend Jasmine, the whole unwieldy subplot might have toppled over entirely.
This is a shame, because the ideas are there. But it all gets gussied up in the name of some bizarre personal art project Billie undertakes with no explanation whatsoever that seems engineered into the film solely to cause third act drama. The film as a whole feels slightly overcooked by scripter Matthew Cormack, when it has enough structural gimmickry in its being filmed once a week across a year to sustain it. Again, the nobility and craft here mostly flattens out these problems as a viewing experience, but immediate reflection makes the flaws difficult to ignore.
Similarly weak is Billie’s father, played with “Do I have to?” energy by Beau Travis Williams, who ultimately acquits himself well in at least one tender scene amidst a raft of wooden ones. Mario Späte as James’ presumably gay brother is similarly lost in translation; while the energy and talent is there, a reason for the character’s presence isn’t.
Now, much of this is likely a result of the unusual shooting schedule that comes with the wonderfully positive choice of casting a non-gender conforming actor in the role of James. But while that would have sufficed as a narrative engine, Cormack and director Sophie Hyde have focused too intently on maintaining a narrative throughline when a more measured exploration of the relationship between James and Billie would have been more compelling and moving. The film is, though, quite prettily photographed by Bryan Mason in widescreen that utilises space and light in creative ways.
Mason also edited the film, and alongside Hyde and her experience as a documentarian (this is her first fiction feature), the film is too jumpy and stitched together in a way that might have been avoided if extraneous elements had been whittled away for simplicity’s sake. Scenes that might be allowed to breathe are cut too quickly or early, and others seem spliced in as though from another part of the film’s timeline entirely.
It’s so rare for female-to-male transitions to be depicted in media that it’s difficult to be harsh on a film which is never quite bad or unwatchable, but assuredly has growing pains. Similarly commendable is its ability to focus on the implications of transitioning rather than the medical realities. Ultimately, it is about James’ psychological shift more than his physical one, which may be why Billie’s more physical side of the story doesn’t gel quite as well. But it’s a fine work from Hyde, who will hopefully go on to bigger and better things as a result of 52 Tuesdays‘ successes. Australian cinema needs more female directorial voices like hers.
Laurence Barber – follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.