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Breaking up the boy
A UK region 0 DVD review of ROMEOS and on-stage discussion with the cast and crew by Timothy E. RAW
 

Certainly, it is not the duty of drama to be diplomatic, moderate or unchallenging, yet as a minority-within-a-minority of LGBT representations on screen, too many transgender films have the reactive tendency of going for the jugular to get their point across. The act of holding a mirror up to the ignorance and intolerance of a wider viewership is one that simultaneously risks any commercial prospects. There's a misplaced onus in these films on misery, sleaze and suffering as the most effective means of making an audience begin to appreciate just how thick a transgender person's skin needs to be every time they walk out the front door and try to blend in with a largely uninformed, transphobic society.

It's perfectly understandable that so many transgender films seethe with indignation and from personal experience, I know that the relentlessly depressive depictions of hardship and ostraciziation seen in the likes of Boys Don't Cry, Transamerica and The Crying Game are all-too accurate. For anyone transgendered or transitioning, the daily pile-up of casually cruel remarks and inconsiderate gawkers lying in wait on every corner can instantly destroy the confidence it takes so long to build. When it's a choice between constantly looking over your shoulder or making yourself invisible, all that fear, hatred and misunderstanding is impossible to ever fully tune out.

Reflecting that reality, films with transgender characters at their centre are often tough and unsettling. When not kept in check that residual anger can make it a gruelling, repugnant two hours for an audience, accounting in part for the serious lack of visibility these types of films have outside the spotlight of specialist festivals. Understanding the need to make her heavy subject matter something more accessible than we're used to seeing in this genre, writer-director Sabine Bernardi repositions her transgender romance of sexual acceptance as a coming of age teen film. With a game cast of young talent she works wonders, offsetting the dysfunction at the story's core with infectious enthusiasm and knowing humour.

Lukas (the phenomenal Rick Okon) is a pre-operative female to male transsexual who has used medication and a strict bodybuilding routine to completely convince as a male. Pleased with the results, his confidence takes a hit when he moves to Cologne to work in a nursing home only to find himself mistakenly placed in the female dorm. Luckily, he has the companionship of childhood friend Ine (Liv Lisa Fries), who whisks him out onto the dance floors and into the house parties of the city's gay scene to celebrate his new identity. It's not long before loose Lothario Fabio (a smouldering Maximilian Befort) is eyeing him up as the next notch on his bedpost and both are instantly attracted to one another. A closeted homosexual who's only interested in casual sex, Fabio starts to develop deeper feelings for Lukas who keeps his distance as he wrestles with the possible fallout of sharing his secret with the vain, volatile, and deeply confused hunk.

Never trumpeting the contradictions teenage social mores in weightily thematic sense, Bernardi's adolescent observations are teased out through nuance in character and performance. Similarly, she handles her hard-sell subject with frank sentiment and delicate understanding, carefully aligning transgender difficulties with the wider complexities of teenage life. The analogy makes the film relatable to anyone who's ever experienced the social pressures of high school, not just the minority at which this film would ordinarily be aimed.

Bernardi's attention to detail is also mightily impressive. The opening shot has Lukas injecting himself with male hormones, a daily necessity that far too many films with transitioning protagonists infuriatingly omit or skip over, as if all it takes is a change of clothes and a drastic haircut. What's more, he's broadcasting this on YouTube as part of a female-to-male diary of his experience – a performative gesture that brings home not only the enormity of his isolation but an entire community's. These are lonely people, solitaries who cling together in an electronic support network of video responses and comment section encouragement they can't find at home. As a worldwide space in which the dialogue of the marginalised is allowed to flourish, Lukas speaking in English emphasises his need to reach out as far as the whole world in order to connect. Unable to relate to anyone in Cologne and perhaps even the whole of Germany, his frustration is not only sexual but existential.

The deep vulnerability that the boyish, soft-featured Okon projects out into cyberspace and for the rest of the picture is achingly endearing, his emotional commitment to the role more than matched by his willingness to bear all physically. Wearing incredibly realistic prosthetics, Okon makes the special effects a natural extension of his performance, foregrounding Lukas' deep self-loathing for his own body. The nudity that is shown is confrontational but never exploitative, always asserting a sense of isolation and Bernardi strikes a responsible balance between what needs to be shown and what's better left to the imagination.

Despite developing muscles and facial hair, Lukas still has to bury his more womanly attributes under layers of clothing, strapping his arms round his chest defensively whenever Fabio draws near. Okon takes a wonderfully oblique approach to the discomfort of this duality, with squeamish facial expressions revealing his true nature even as his body convincingly conceals it.

If all Lukas really wants is to fit in, then the same is true of every character in the ensemble, who are just as much at the mercy of hormones as he is. It's easy to view Lukas' transitional journey as an amplified echo of teen life; a deft exploration of the fragile nature of friendship and loyalty at that age, and the way in which seemingly off-handed, harmless remarks can be blown out of all proportion into betrayal and rejection. With moods swinging all over the place it's certainly a prickly portraiture of youth culture, with everyone seemingly competing for the honour of most self-involved asshole. Bernardi has too much respect for Lukas to make a martyr of him, unafraid to show him as an occasionally petulant narcissist, rejecting his best friend in favour of all the newfound attention he now has as a male.

As an example of the ungovernable Darwinisism that drives social circles of teenagers, Romeos considers what young people need in order to be happy, be they gay, straight or transgender.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, which itself suggests the film may have been shot on HD, the image is spotless and boasts generally well balanced contrast and a good level of detail for DVD (oh how high-def has spoilt us here), though the image is not quite as crisp in some shots as it is in others. The colour scheme wanders a little from naturalistic, depending on the location and lighting and alterations made in post, with some interiors having a reddish hue.

There's a choice between Dolby stereo 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 surround, and somewhat surprisingly, the streo wins hands down, being clear and with a good bass-treble range, while the surround track almost sounds muffled by comparion and sits almost exclusively at the front and centre. The only edge the 5.1 has is punchier bass on diegetic music, but I'll still take the stereo every time.

extra features

No film specific extras, though if you're into trailers then there are ten here for other Peccadillo releases.

summary

Romeos never shies away from the hardship of trans youth, but as a richly textured ode to adolescent love, it's a story that anyone who's ever been a teenager can relate to, regardless of gender. A unique boy-meets-boy love story which at times plays like a more commercial raucous teen comedy, Bernardi's debut transcends easy categorisation and proves she's one to watch in the future.

 


The following Q&A was conducted by Timothy E. RAW at the opening night of POUT Fest on the 21st June 2012. Huge thanks to the kind folks at Peccadillo Pictures for getting us involved!

 

Romeos is playing as part of the POUT Fest on tour in Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham. Dates can be found here: http://poutfest.co.uk/?portfolio=romeos-2

Romeos

Germany 2011
mins
director
Sabine Bernardi
producers
Kristina Löbbert
Janna Velber
screenplay
Sabine Bernardi
cinematography
Moritz Schultheiß
editing
Renata Salazar Ivancan
music
Roland Appel
production design
Christiane Schmid
starring
Rick Okon
Maximilian Befort
Liv Lisa Fries
Felix Brocke
Silke Geertz

disc details
region
video
1.77:1
sound
credit
languages
German / English / Italian
subtitles
English
extras
Trailers
distributor
Peccadillo Pictures
release date
9 July 2012
review posted
24 July 2012

See all of Timothy E. RAW's reviews