Define Frenzy: Coming-of-Self
The last in a series of weekly essays throughout June attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films.Movies Features sElf
“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen.
Check out the first entry here, the second here, the third here and last week’s here.
Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays (2013)—in which a young woman explores her identity while her parent transitions after coming out as a trans man—is about time. It is as interested in the impact time has on 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) and who she is as it is on her aforementioned parent, James (Del Herbert-Jane), and who he is. They are both, literally and metaphorically, in a state of transition, and though the film is primarily told from Billie’s perspective, James’s point of view and experience is not sacrificed in the process.
52 Tuesdays uses time and queerness to reinvent the “coming-of-age” story, even arguing for the necessity that such a subgenre’s name be discarded in favor of something more accurate. The coming-of-age narrative is usually specified by that very thing: Age—focusing on teenagers or kids, that narrative rarely considers characters outside of that age parameter within such transitional terms. 52 Tuesdays asks for something broader, a term or a subgenre name that doesn’t feel as compressed or constrictive. The “coming-of-self,” as it were.
That it’s filmed over the course of a year in real time is crucial: Time shapes these people’s identities in real, discernible ways. Flashes of the news pass before the text on screen, indicating at which Tuesday we’ve arrived. That context is everything and nothing, both showing the push and pull of the outside world on everyone in the film, as well as indicating the impenetrable bubble in which Billie and James live. The dynamic between them is contingent on time as a representation of expansiveness within identity.
Other films that could be seen as coming-of-self stories include Laurence Anyways, Tomboy, Carol and Beginners—films are about trans women, gender nonconforming kids, lesbians and older gay men, respectively. They present a larger spectrum of identity, a deeper relationship between temporality and oneself, than many more conventional “gay” movies. Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine would fall into this mix too, because, as fully realized as SinDee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are, and however cognizant they are of their place in the world, there’s still an aspect of exploration on their minds. What do they mean to each other? What impact does that have on their own life? Tangerine as a rollicking neo-screwball comedy about trans women on the search for a philandering boyfriend presents its more explicit genre hat as a magic trick and a distraction: Over the course of a day, SinDee and Alexandra still learn some transformational things about themselves and each other.
Its digital aesthetic (it was, as you’ve heard a million times, shot on iPhones) interrogates the proximity of love and friendship in a new age, and how we construct our identities. The film is interspersed with strangers in a cab, despondent, and, as Baker himself noted, “not exactly satisfied with themselves.” Of the girl taking a selfie, he says, “She’s sitting there and she can’t take a selfie. You can see disappointment on her face. I think everybody is, to a certain degree, dealing with their identity, their own self-identity.” To see ourselves on screen, to watch as our queer siblings, fictional or otherwise, try to grow and fluctuate and continually transform in a world where only a certain kind of person gets to do freely undergo that kind of transformation, is what makes these films so moving, essential—so necessary.
Perhaps that notion is trite, even saccharine, but coming-of-age films are too often relegated to portraying the stories of either straight people or conventionally attractive, young gay guys. What 52 Tuesdays and Tangerine argue: To make a good coming-of-self movie is to avoid its tropes altogether. Give a character a real life, let them navigate what it means to be themselves, to have no easy answers. Being someone isn’t easy—being queer, even less so. The flaws in these characters are not incidental but embedded into the tactility of their actions and emotions. They are imperfect, not in a showy or pandering way. Instead, their flaws are reachable, their humanity raw.
52 Tuesdays traveled the festival circuit in 2013 and was later picked up by Kino Lorber with limited theatrical distribution and VOD distribution. Tangerine was released in 2015 by Magnolia with wider theatrical distribution and higher visibility. Though the latter ascended to a higher profile, the existence of these films seems to prove that there are stories of queer people on the margins that are not only worth telling, but are beginning to be considered as stories people want to hear, to watch, to feel required to understand.
If “coming-of-age” denotes or implicates a cisgender whiteness, “coming-of-self” wants more. And time is everything. Time has passed long enough, either in a year in 52 Tuesdays or in a single day in Tangerine, for these stories to be told, presented, admired, loved, reviled, questioned. But they need to be told.
Queer cinema, to be fair, doesn’t always have to feature explicitly queer people, but these stories don’t have to manifest as such either. With the transgender allegories of Under the Skin and Videodrome, or the fear of otherness in [SAFE], or of queerness and blackness in Candyman, somehow articulating these ideas is hardly impossible. But, again: They should and must be told.
And it’s all about time. The thing is, queer people have waited too long—after years of bad coming out movies, of queers as criminals, sissies, monsters and tragic figures—to know they want to see themselves on screen, to see themselves struggle with who they are and all the messiness, hurt, heartbreak, anger, pleasure, happiness, confusion, ecstasy, eroticism and tumult that implies. They want to come-of-self the same way others get to come-of-age. They want to define queerness as they know it—and they know it when they see it.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber. He has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, the Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.