Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 26, l996. Evoking in theme and spirit such “eccentric relationship” films as The Kiss of the Spider Woman, My Beautiful Launderette, and most recently The Crying Game, Different for Girls is a charmingly offbeat serio-comedy about the evolving friendship and eventual love between a rambunctious macho and a quiet, insecure transsexual. Toplined by handsome Brit thesp Rupert Graves, in a star-making performance, this oddball British meller should be picked for theatrical release by an entrepreneurial distributor who, with the right handling, can bring a poignantly compassionate story to the attention of many young, hip viewers.
A disturbing 1978 prologue establishes the unusual bond between Karl Foyle (Stephen Walker), an effeminate boy who tucks his genitals behind his legs when he showers, and Paul Prentice (Blake Ritson), a strong-willed lad who protects Karl when the other school boys beat and mockingly jeer at him. Needless to say, both students are reprimanded and expelled from school.
Action then jumps forward to present-day London and a random meeting between the two, when a taxicab taking Karl to work crashes into Prentice's speeding motorcycle. “Only” difference is that Karl is now a transsexual named Kim (Steven Mackintosh). Despite initial reluctance to renew ties with their troubled past, Kim agrees to meet up with Prentice (Graves).
At first, it seems the two have nothing in common. Still rooted in the l970s, with its distinct music and fashion, the immature Prentice, who works as a dispatch rider, refuses to grow up and face responsibilities. In contrast, Kim holds a steady job in a greeting card company, making every possible effort to live a quiet, “normal” life as a woman. As expected, after a shaky start, Prentice and Kim begin to warm up and even show interest in each other.
Scripter Tony Merchant doesn't place Kim in the familiar, often shady milieu of colorful transvestites and flamboyant transsexuals, as other movies have conveniently done. Instead, he emphasizes Kim's ambition to live a mainstream life, to totally blend in–at least not to stick out. Nonetheless, one night after a heated argument Prentice loses his temper, exposes himself in public and the two get arrested. Assaulting a police officer who's nasty and rude to Kim, Prentice ends up in jail.
The film becomes routinely melodramatic, when Prentice asks Kim to make a witness statement to his solicitor, saying he was attacked, and Kim runs away in panic to her sister, angry and humiliated by the way Prentice has mistreated her and also scared of exposure in court. Police and courtroom scenes drag the story down to the level of a routine TV movie.
However, staying with sister Jean (Saskia Reeves) and her hubby Neil (Neil Dudgeon) provides an opportunity to develop a subplot that enriches the plot and adds resonance to its chief issue of alternative lifestyles. There's a wonderfully emotional scene between Neil, a sterile military sergeant who admits he's not the biological dad of his son but feels like his father, and Kim, who has always been called auntie by her nephew, even when he was “technically” a man. This sharply observed scene underlines the film's contempo sensibility, specifically the limitations imposed by language and the problematic use of seemingly simple concepts like gender, sexual identity and family.
Most remarkable is director Richard Spence's candid approach to an arduously challenging subject and his refusal to either trivialize or camp-up transsexualism. Yarn is marked by honesty, and possibly first-time detailed portrait of a person's life and identity after undergoing sex operation. In the delicately staged climax, Prentice asks Kim to take off her clothes and the two stand fully naked in front of each other before jumping into bed.
Helmer alternates the interactional scenes, some of which are too earnest, with fast-moving sequences, which are tremendously assisted by Prentice being a biker. Outdoors shots of London are accompanied by vibrant music that compensates for the slower and solemn moments. Rousing ending, in which Prentice and Kim, dressed in matching leather suits, with Kim in the driving seat of a macho motorbike, is both well-earned and emotionally satisfying.
After a decade of mostly supporting roles (Maurice, Damage, The Madness of King George), Graves assuredly demonstrates that he can carry a picture with his stunning looks, considerable talent and charisma. In the difficult, often subdued role of an insecure transsexual, Mackintosh is not exactly Graves' match, but still delivers an honorable performance. Shining throughout is distinguished character actress Miriam Margolyes who, as Kim's tough-sensitive boss, steals every scene she is in, rendering her witty lines with perfectly pitched timing.
A small, modest film, Different for Girls lacks the narrative audacity and visual bravura of My Beautiful Launderette or The Crying Game, but its intimate scale and proficient production values make for an enjoyable humanistic film.