One of two excellent documentaries on gender transition by “Sound and the Fury” director Josh Aronson, “The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story” offers a thoroughly engrossing verite look at titular California trucker’s singleminded quest to become the fully-equipped male that s/he has always felt like psychologically. Turbulent, warts-and-all chronicle finds complexity and dignity in the subject and personalities. Slotted for airing on Showtime next year, both features could attract broadcast awards; meanwhile, they rep a fine programming choice for fests, gay and otherwise.
Thirty-one-year-old Anaheim, Calif., resident Rene Pena is a diminutive barrel of machismo in a working-class profession, with body-building athleticism, and a relationship with demure wife Wona, whom Rene met as a teen and married when she turned 18. From as early as age 3, the child began assertively identifying as male, dressing the part and taping down breasts once adolescent growth hit. Despite rumors, fights, etc., the deception was complete enough that through extreme clothing modesty and discreet use of plastic genital replicas the naive Wona incredibly didn’t know her husband lacked a penis until 12 years into their coupledom. At this point they have a comfortable suburban home, temporary adoptive custody of two young boys, and all other outward signs of stable conventionality.
After a decade of taking testosterone, Rene is now weighing surgical options, convinced — with somewhat unrealistic expectations, anatomically speaking — that, “When I have my phallus attached, I will be whole, because my body and soul will match.”
Rene is not especially sensitive to the extreme distress this and other changes are causing for Wona, who until recently had no idea (or perhaps denied) her husband was “different.” Now she’s facing the possibility that their marriage was never legal, as well as the embarrassment of her spouse’s new public profile as a transgender spokesperson. (Ironically, Rene had previously been macho to the point of mild homophobia.) Worst of all, from Wona’s p.o.v., the church they were devoutly involved with has now tossed them out.
Focus stays on their increasingly fragile relationship as Rene investigates surgical options before finally going under the knife (in brief operating-room footage). His doctor describes Rene’s lifelong sense of gender misassignment by calling Rene “a man with a really bad birth defect.”
Sympathetically framed as the plight is, however, the strongest drama comes from the intolerable stress the pair’s newly “unmasked” relationship puts on Wona — and despite a deep bond, it looks unlikely they’ll survive this transition as a couple.
Astute editing packs a great deal into short run time without seeming rushed or sensational. Tech aspects are sharp.