Companion piece to "Rene's Story," Showtime-produced docu "The Opposite Sex: Jamie's Story" vaults the fence from the other direction as a middle-aged Midwestern man decides to spend the rest of his life as a woman -- a decision that alienates nearly everyone in his hitherto closeknit group of family and friends.

Companion piece to “Rene’s Story,” Showtime-produced docu “The Opposite Sex: Jamie’s Story” vaults the fence from the other direction as a middle-aged Midwestern man decides to spend the rest of his life as a woman — a decision that alienates nearly everyone in his hitherto closeknit group of family and friends. A less in-your-face protag and more genteel environs make this slightly less dramatic, but occasionally more poignant than “Rene.” But both share insightful, nuanced treatment of potentially lurid content.

Forty-seven-year-old Jim Alter pursued manly roles so successfully for so long — playing football, starting a family, running auto-shop and construction businesses, hanging with the guys — that the shock was total when he announced he would now cross-dress (and, eventually, undergo sex-change surgery) as a woman. Reactions range from his mother’s earnest bewilderment to the scandalized fury of in-laws. Only wife of 25 years Brenda retrospectively sees signs she’d ignored of the cross-dressing, then hormone-taking “alter ego” he managed to keep secret for decades.

Her supportiveness is remarkable, even if she strongly doubts their marriage will survive his ultimate transition. But nearly everyone else close to Jim, a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, Mich., cannot accept the new pre-op “Jamie.” Business contracts drastically fall off, siblings cut off contact, buddies confess doing the same old guy things just don’t seem right anymore. (We’re told the Alters’ adolescent daughter also undergoes inevitable stress, but she and parents evidently chose to keep her outside docu’s scrutiny.)

Guileless Jim/Jamie can’t really understand why no one but Brenda can make this leap with him. His actions are viewed as selfish, but from his viewpoint, he’s spent his entire life trying to embody other people’s expectations. With support from a post-op confidante, Jamie rather giddily gets a full hair/makeup/wardrobe makeover, explores surgery options before going to Los Angeles for the “big one,” and at last relocates in Florida where this new identity can start afresh.

As plainspokenly American-heartland as can be, the West Michigan milieu and personalities help defuse topic’s surface exoticism. Moreover, it’s clear that if a personality struggle like Jim/Jamie’s can evolve here, the key issues must be more organic than a matter of mere choice.

Strong sense of place grounds helmer Josh Aronson’s docu, which is superbly edited by Janet Swanson. Tech aspects are above-average by verite standards.

The Opposite Sex: Jamie's Story

Docu

Production

A Showtime presentation of a Hensel/Krasnow production. Produced by Josh Aronson, Linda York, Francine Bergman. Executive producers, Bruce Hensel, Stuart Krasnow. Directed by Josh Aronson.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Brett Wiley; editor, Janet Swanson; music, Michael Rohaytn. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Festival, June 22, 2003. Running time: 73 MIN.

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