There’s an important story to be told within the documentary Songs For Alexis; unfortunately director Elvira Lind is not skilled enough to catch it. The result is a film which is deeply unsatisfying in its exploration of transgender individuals – missing some of the essential issues within the community, to focus on a story of teen angst that only glancingly connects with what makes the film unique.
Director: Elvira Lind.
Screenplay: Maja Jul Larsen, Elvira Lind. (Documentary)
Runtime: 75 minutes.
Cast: Ryan Cassata, Francine Cassata, Alexis Ann.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: Ryan Cassata is a transgender man and aspiring young performer, nineteen and madly in love with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Alexis. But things do not go smoothly, as Alexis’ father is fundamentally unable to accept Ryan as an individual and forbids the relationship. Amidst rising success and recognition, Ryan must struggle against his intense feelings and love for Alexis to continue performing. The documentary captures moments between Ryan and the people surrounding him; showing a unique man in an ordinary, loving environment that everyone deserves.
Festival Goers? Unfortunately, miss it.
Review: There’s an important story to be told within the documentary Songs For Alexis; unfortunately director Elvira Lind is not skilled enough to tell it. The result is a film which is deeply unsatisfying in its exploration of transgender individuals – missing some of the essential issues within the community, to focus on a story of teen angst that only glancingly connects with what makes the film unique. The film follows transgender man Ryan Cassata, a nineteen-year-old boy and performer who has found a following within the transgender community, and is developing into a talented musical performer. The core of his life, apart from his music, is his relationship with sixteen-year-old Alexis; a girl who was not aware of his transgender when they met, but who quickly came to love and appreciate him as a unique individual. Things come to a head when Alexis’ father refuses to let the girl date him any further; placing both lovers in an impossible situation, and with much distance between them.
However, Ryan is exceptionally luck that – at least within the film itself – his everyday life seems not to be unique, and abundantly ordinary. That’s a testament to the strength of his mother’s love and support, as well as the support of his brothers and his friends. It is an environment that every individual has a right to experience; and one that Alexis struggles with, particularly with her father. But it also makes for a dull documentary; as the hopes, dreams, and complications of both Ryan and Alexis’ existences are more firmly grounded in the everyday loves and angst of teenage relationships, rather than any issue within itself. On that register, many audience members will have seen this documentary of teenage love and its complications before. Bafflingly, other unique elements are only fleetingly mentioned and ignored – such as Ryan’s embrace by the transgender community and their support, or his parent’s journey towards understanding Ryan’s feelings and expression of his individuality.
His mother recounts a panicked phone call, after substantial breast surgery, from Ryan where he worries ‘Ma, my nipples are falling off!’ It’s funny, and oddly relatable, but it doesn’t get us closer to the inner life and challenges that individuals who feel different from the supposed norm confront. Similarly, Ryan performs as part of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, but the director uses this an opportunity to explore the rocky time Ryan experiences reunited with Alexis, and understandable jealousies ('I watched every YouTube video on jealousy' Ryan amusingly remarks), rather than the significance of Ryan’s performance within that context and the resonance that his music may have for others. Very little time is focused on how Ryan creates that vital music, or his path to performing and gaining recognition for his talent. The film offers up so many unexplored, potentially fruitful avenues that one can’t help but feel that the vital, essential story of Ryan and Alexis has been squandered by a director unable to tell it.
The technical elements of the film do little to make a case for Lind’s mastery of the material, either. Many who haven’t read up on what they are viewing will be confused at first as to whether this actually is a documentary, or simply a fictional effort told in a cinéma verite style. There are YouTube confessionals from Ryan and Alexis throughout, and a shaky amateur quality to the filming that rather than seeming a guerilla stylistic choice instead calls attention to its own inabilities. It has downright frustrating camerawork, which would be excused if Lind had seemed to capture some raw, as-it-happened moments. Yet most are performance set-pieces, walks in the park, or interviews about the home – making the quality of the cinematography unforgivable. For a very short film, it wastes a lot of time on couch languishing and facebooking. Occasionally Lind gets ambitious and attempts something like the clichéd panning from a mirror shot to the action, or the like. Then there’s the on-the-nose establishing shots of an American Flag cut with a broken playground; one could hear the audience’s eyes collectively rolling at the heavy-handedness. Heads are cut off, with simple framing issues abounding, etc, etc.
It’s an injustice to Ryan and Alexis’ story, as well as the thousands of others like them. I deeply hope that at some point in the future a more skilled director and team return to check in with the two. And in the process move the experiences of audiences into a space where they are more open to discussing the absolute normality of transgender individuals, and the role everyone has in supporting and accepting them.
Rating: Two stars.