Monday, September 29, 2014

Raindance: Songs for Alexis (2014)

Songs for Alexis poster
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The acceptance of LGBT rights in America has moved at an insane speed in the last 5 years, with opinion polls unanimously showing a growing acceptance of gay lifestyles (it’s nowhere near perfect but it’s getting there.)  But it is arguably the 'T' in LGBT that is still so misunderstood.  People usually say that as soon as you know someone affected by an issue, then it can change your opinion – well if you don’t know any transgender teenagers then a powerful documentary might give you the inspiration to broaden your mind…

Ryan Cassata is an 18-year-old trans male from Long Island, New York, who has just had a double mastectomy as part of his transition.  He lives with his (amazing) mum and two brothers, and like to write husky folk songs and perform them whenever he can to tell his story. 

Ryan’s life changed drastically again when he went to summer camp and met Alexis, his first love and muse.  Alexis had no idea that Ryan was trans and simply fell in love with him anyway, much to the disgust of her conservative father.  The story begins with Ryan learning that he will be playing a gig at the San Francisco Pride March, and then travelling across the country and trying to confront the pressures of being in a trans relationship at such a young age

The film plays out like a road movie, containing the standard geographic / symbolic journey between a pair of characters who learn all about themselves as they travel West across America – a trip that is fraught with danger, as seen when when they plan their journey taking into account the dangerous (i.e. Republican and Evangelical) states where Ryan might be at risk.

At times the characters are so comfortable on camera that you momentarily forget that it is non-fiction.  So comfortable in fact that it almost feels intrusive watching these two teenagers discussing jealousy, sex and young love.  I imagine that there was hours of intimate footage that the filmmakers didn’t include, but some of the moments are onscreen are heartbreakingly warm – especially between Ryan and his mother.

There are also some touching and very funny moments where Ryan is experimenting with ways to feel more male – whether it’s a small stuck-on beard, a request for surgery to get belly button hair or a rubber penis to sit inside his shorts…  

Finally, the film might have fallen flat if his singing/songwriting was just the ramblings of an angst-ridden teenager, but Ryan has a really great voice and writes interesting songs.  Obviously he is only 18 so that is reflected in his lyrics, but the music is really strong enough to keep the film going and for you to care about his ambitions – incidentally, I’m already listening to his album on Spotify).

Whether you are interested in the sexual politics, or just the adorable young love, then there is a lot to love about Songs for Alexis – I just hope that I never have to found out whether they stuck together or not… I can only dream.

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