We tend to use the phrase "daring" a lot when we talk about cinema these days. Every time someone remotely strays off the beaten track, we praise it for its bravery, even if it's only slight. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. But "daring" isn't a word we use often when talking about Australian films. With funding always difficult to come by and little to no guarantee anyone in this country is going to see it because of the stigma we have against our own cinema, it's easier to play it safe and swim between the flags. We don't do "daring". So when I use that word to describe Sophie Hyde's debut feature film '52 Tuesdays', forget my tendency towards hyperbole and believe it. This is a film that throws all caution to the wind and goes for the guts on many subjects most filmmakers in this country would never dare approach.
Sixteen-year-old Billie (Tilda Cogham-Hervey) comes home from school one day to an unexpected announcement - her mum (Del Herbert-Jane) is about to begin a gender transition to become a man. Worried about how the stress will affect both of them, she decides it is best for Billie to live with her dad for a year, so Billie and her mum, now James, make a pact: to spend every Tuesday afternoon together no matter what. The film covers that year, but only on a Tuesday, all fifty-two of them, and puts both Billie and James under the microscope as they come to terms with the shift in their lives, both with each other and with themselves.
To give the film added verisimilitude, Hyde chose to follow the same rule, shooting the film over a year and only on Tuesdays, and whatever they got on that day was what they would have to use. And the results are absolutely extraordinary. This is a playfully elegant film, and one that shows absolutely no fear in being as honest as possible. It feels awful to say that showing an "unconventional" view of family and sexuality is brave, but only while watching '52 Tuesdays' do you realise how lacking in representation transgender people and their families have been in cinema (and Jared Leto's "look-at-me" performance in 'Dallas Buyers Club' is included in that). That it should come from this country is even more incredible.
For a first feature, Hyde proves herself an absolute powerhouse of a filmmaker. At no point does she cheat on her challenge or conceit, going the extra mile to convince the audience that they're sticking to their guns in terms of their execution. Every narrative beat is handled with care, especially when it comes to Billie and her own understanding of herself as a sexual being. She begins a friendship with two older kids at school, Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmin (Imogen Archer), and uses their friendship to explore her own sexual boundaries, at times with dangerous results. But at no point does the film condescend or water down Billie's discoveries or journey, always treating them with the same level of respect and consideration afforded to James' transition and the trials that come along with it. The process of transitioning is presented intact and raw, often with documentary commitment (Hyde began her career in documentary filmmaking), and this just makes the film a more fascinating and exhilarating experience. It's also an absolutely gorgeous piece of filmmaking, from cinematographer and editor Bryan Mason's luscious photography and editing, Matthew Cormack's delicate screenplay and Benjamin Speed's terrific score.
The process of transitioning is presented intact and raw, often with documentary commitment.
The cast is also brilliant across the board, but especially Tilda Cogham-Hervey and Del Herbert-Jane. Both new to the screen, they deliver performances of raw commitment and integrity, unafraid to push the other into difficult territory. Every moment they are on screen is electric, and you are completely committed to the development and transition of their relationship. The supporting cast are also terrific, especially Althuisen and Archer, who are given a tightrope to walk as the sexually voracious teenagers, and they walk it with aplomb. Hyde decided to used non- or inexperienced actors for the film, and their honesty and lack of pretence only make for a more powerful experience.
So much was said earlier in the year around Oscars season about "important films". What comes as the greatest shock with '52 Tuesdays' is that it is the real deal, an actual important film about subjects far more necessary and vital to discuss, especially in this country. The film has already made a major impact overseas, winning major awards at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, and one can only hope for great success now that the film has returned home. Sophie Hyde has emerged as a fiery filmmaker we need to keep our eyes on, with a debut film that makes you proud of our film industry. Support Australian cinema and see this film. In fact, you won't just be supporting our film industry. You'll be supporting the idea that we are all human, no matter who we love or who we want to be. Thank goodness for this little miracle of a film.