I was reading some of the reviews of Different for Girls (1996, directed by Richard Spence) last night after I finished watching the movie, and I was stopped up short by Roger Ebert's write up. At the beginning of his review he asks:
"The unexamined mystery at the heart of Different for Girls is--what, exactly, does Paul see in Kim?"
...which, to my mind is the wrong question. He should be asking, rather, "What, exactly, does Kim see in Paul." Unfortunately, given the subject matter, Paul is going to be the default protagonist, because Kim, a transsexual, is going to freak some members of the audience out. This, in spite of the fact that she's far more "normal" and sympathetic than the rootless Paul could ever be. I mean, in ANY other romantic comedy, Ebert would be asking MY version of the question, but that's cisgender privilege for you, I guess.
The story here finds old schoolmates Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves) and Kim Foyle (Steven Mackintosh) literally running into each other years afterward. Paul is a motorcycle messenger who seems perpetually on the verge of losing everything he has, while Kim leads a quiet life as a writer for a greeting card company. They seem like oil and water, but Paul finds that he feels...something...for Kim. Curiosity, maybe, or maybe a proprietary fondness, given that he is shown in flashback defending Kim--then Karl--from bullies at school. After suggesting that they "get together," he winds up having a disastrous lunch with her, then takes her to a club gig by the Buzzcocks (!!!), then teaches her to ride his motorcycle. Basically, he's trying to draw her out of her shell. Unfortunately, his good intentions lead him into a conflict with the cops (which terrifies Kim), and he needs her to testify on his behalf to get him out of his predicament. Kim, for her part, would rather not out herself to a courtroom.
This is a movie built on the bones of the romantic comedy, but there's always a wall of separation between its cool detachment and the passion you might want in such a movie. I think the mismatch between Paul and Kim is to blame for this. Graves and Mackintosh don't really strike any sparks, even though I can't really fault them for trying. Graves overplays Paul. For the first half of the movie he's kind of an annoyance. Mackintosh, on the other hand, gives a marvelously understated performance. The movie's conception of Kim Foyle is refreshing, actually. She's one of the few really convincing transsexuals to grace the screen. She's normal to the point of squareness, actually, and shy to the point of withdrawn. In a movie where most of the other characters have a forced exuberance to them, she's an island of calm. The hurts the movie does to her sting. You can hear the wistfulness in her voice when she answers Paul's "I'm straight, you know," with "So am I." There's a world of romantic disappointment in Mackintosh's line reading of this exchange, one that I know all too well myself.
Most people crave representations of themselves in the movies they see and I'm no different. It would be easy for me to cling to this movie as some kind of paragon for getting the experience of transsexuality "right," because I see a lot of me in Kim Foyle and a lot of the experiences of my friends. Sympathetic depictions that avoid stereotypes are so rare that I do treasure them when I find them. I like Kim Foyle a lot and I think Steven Mackintosh knocks it out of the park when depicting her day to day life. I just wish the movie itself were better. It trips itself up with its need to have a plot. The whole business with the cops seems forced, as does the romance between Paul and Kim. Rupert Graves, who is a fine actor, doesn't seem terribly invested in the romance, and he plays the kind of arrested adolescent lately found in Judd Apatow comedies. He's rootless, a slob, and a boor. To repeat my question, "What does she see in him?" The notion that she's loved him for protecting her in school is a facile explanation. That she's desperate for someone to love is probably more on the mark, but this recasts Kim in the role of the pathetic transsexual, which makes me love the movie even less. It compounds this fault by comparing Kim with her brother-in-law, who is dealing with problems of infertility. The notion that reproductive capability is the measure of a man (or woman) kind of sours me on the whole thing. And while Steven Mackintosh is mostly impeccable, the movie does indulge in some of the tics that cisgender people expect of trans women.
Still, there are pleasures to be had. I mentioned the Buzzcocks, right? Different for Girls is suffused with the afterglow of punk and post-punk. It makes good use of the Joe Jackson song from which it takes its title and punk survivor Ian Dury (of the Blockheads) has a minor role. There's a bunch of punk on the soundtrack, too. It strikes me as weird that a movie as resolutely square as this one should be so in love with punk, but then, I'm happy about it, too. Punk conquered the world in spite of itself. This is a tension that shows up in its gender politics, too. At a fundamental level, this transgresses the gender norms of most depictions of trans people, but it does so in the most conventional way I can imagine.