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JUST CHARLIE: Willing Empathy Into Being

Director Rebekah Fortune's Just Charlie is an empathetic transgender coming out tale that slowly becomes a moving story of self-acceptance.

Charlie (Harry Gilby) gazes at her reflection in the mirror. She is in the locker room after soccer practice, not listening as her friends laugh and try to chat with her. On the ride home, she stares at herself in the side-view mirror, tuning out as her father (Scot Williams) discusses soccer scholarships and her future career. Charlie is reserved, speaking only when asked a question, and even then she responds with a simple yes or no. Her parents begin to notice that something feels off about the child they recognise as their son.

Just Charlie tells the story of an adolescent living with body dysphoria, or the feeling that they were born into the wrong body. Charlie feels a burning desire to dress in women’s clothing, to wear make-up, and to appear feminine because he identifies as female, not male. Rebekah Fortune takes a detailed approach at depicting Charlie’s struggle, focusing more on the intimacy of her journey. In the hands of such a capable filmmaker, Fortune seems to know that portraying the trans experience is a complicated endeavor; how to tell a story that feels inclusive yet insightful? Fortunately, what we are left with is a precise, heartfelt film that gives its audience space to understand and to learn.

Delicate Storytelling

Just Charlie is not a broad story. In fact, it is very insular to one particular family, the Lyndsays. They are your typical nuclear unit with a mother, Susan (Patricia Potter) and father, Paul (Williams), an older daughter named Eve (Elinor Machen-Fortune), and the youngest child, Charlie (Gilby). They are a nondescript, middle-class family. They bicker, banter, and always love one another unconditionally. When Charlie begins to question her gender identity, she hides it from her family.

And despite constant love and support from her family, this fear of being exposed is portrayed as genuine. Charlie’s fear is not necessarily rooted in the idea that her family will not accept her, but that they will not understand her. After all, fear of rejection leads many to make irrational decisions. And Charlie, at such a young age, is caught between two worlds: one where she can live up to her father’s expectations and one where she can express her inner self. The stakes are small, but deeply personal.

JUST CHARLIE: Willing Empathy into Being

source – Wolfe Releasing

On its surface, Just Charlie tells a simple story. It is certainly about acceptance, from both yourself and from others. But there is something that sets Just Charlie apart from various films that hone in on the trans experience: the revelation that is coming out as trans. From the start of the film, Charlie feels as though she does not belong in her body. We watch as she sees women dressed the way she wants to be dressed, admiring them from afar, but never being able to say anything.

She steals away, taking clothes from her sister and trying them on in a secluded wooded area. This story feels like one that we, as an audience, are just stepping into. However, for Charlie, this has been going on for years. The “revelation” of her trans identity is not initiated after one particular instance. Rather, it simply apart of who she is. Oftentimes, in films with this focus, individuals come to terms with their identity after an inciting incident. Just Charlie does not do this. Feeling different has always been a part of who Charlie is- the film is simply the story of her finally accepting this part of herself.

A Family Affair

As intimate and personal as Fortune’s film is, it also takes a painstaking look at the family unit. Yes, Charlie is at the center of this and is the catalyst for the development of each member in her family, but the film is unafraid in scenes featuring just Susan, or Paul, or Eve making sense of this change. They ultimately come to accept Charlie, to love her and fiercely defend her against close-minded friends, but this does not always come easily, in Paul’s case.

These moments, watching a mother and father negotiate what is best for their daughter, are filmed in one steady shot – focused solely on the actors. There are no cinematic tricks here; just the power of two performers acting opposite one another, and these instances meander, but in the best way possible. They are deeply felt and incredibly genuine.

JUST CHARLIE: Willing Empathy into Being

source: Wolfe Video

This is where the beauty of Fortune’s film truly lies. Set in a small Midlands market town with characters as real-to-life as can be, Just Charlie is a story about tolerance and perseverance. Her family eventually discovers Charlie’s secret, and this moment is met with a combination of acceptance and confusion. Susan and Eve are immediate sources of comfort in such a tricky time for Charlie, but Paul doesn’t quite understand why Charlie would want to put herself through the trouble of transitioning.

It’s at times maddening, but honest. There is no instruction manual for human emotion, and so to watch these characters make sense of Charlie’s transition is equal parts affirming and heartbreaking. Ensconced in a community that is equal parts accepting and bigoted helps to ground the film in reality, implying that there will always be push-back against progression, but so long as you have a stable support system, anything feels possible.

Just Charlie: Conclusion

Charlie’s story is not an easy one to tell. Encompassing everything that is wrapped up in the trans experience would be impossible, but Fortune seems to have known how complex of a challenge this would be. Rather than trying to include every detail of one girl’s transition, we learn as she learns, and we watch her grow over time. That is not to say the film is not detailed, of course. One crucial scene features Charlie and her mother talking to a doctor as they discuss their options for the future.

One includes “puberty blockers,” or agents (or medicine) that would stop the release of testosterone into a male body; thus, giving the adolescent time to think about their gender identity. The film does not explain all of this to us – it is only briefly mentioned. But that speaks to the film’s ability to capture the confusion and rapidity that these events happen. These are tiny moments that teach us and allow us space to understand.

At times, Just Charlie treads a path often seen in films that attempt to navigate one’s trans experience; it hits familiar beats. Additionally, the final fifteen minutes tries to tell us too much- wherein, it wraps up a lot of the ambiguity with a neat little bow, while also showcasing an act of violence that never really feels resolved. It felt as though there was more of a film here that was left on the cutting room floor. Still, what remains is a story that needed to be told. With an influx of trans representation in television and film, Just Charlie is a touching reminder that these stories need to be told. And perhaps it is our job to listen.

With that, I turn it to you! How do you think personal character studies, like Just Charlie, examine society as a whole? What do these films teach us? 

Just Charlie premiered at various independent film festivals in 2017. It is available for pre-order on iTunes and various streaming platforms (with a January 30 release date). 

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

An Instructor of Communication Studies at Ball State University, Spencer enjoys the simple things in life: his cat (Laura Dern), Laura Dern (the actress), and snagging any chance he can get to watch movies. In his spare time, he champions Kristen Stewart and writes think-pieces about why Taylor Swift is a pop music mastermind.

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