Honest, intelligent and absolutely clear-eyed, “She’s a Boy I Knew” proves there’s still more to be squeezed out of transsexual documentaries. Helmer Gwen Haworth turns the camera on herself and loved ones to chart not just her path to gender reassignment surgery, but the toll the decision took on those around her. Though unflinching, Haworth avoids the kind of narcissistic, sensationalized public confessional of TV chatshows, going deeper into the emotional morass sparked by definitions of gender and its roles. With several awards already under its belt, the docu is set to be a fest fave.
Mastering an impressive degree of self-analysis, Haworth narrates her life, editing older homemovies with interviews of family and friends. Born Steven, the eldest child of Colleen and Thomas, he knew early on that he wasn’t comfortable in his skin, though as Haworth explains, she thought of herself as a girl, not a transsexual, expressing a refreshing distaste for the phrase “a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
This pull, however, had nothing to do with his sexual attractions, which were directed firmly to women. In college, he fell in love with Malgosia Rawicz, and they married in 1997. When Steven first told her of his desire to live as a woman, she was understandably shaken. His parents, too, were shocked: “This was so out of left field,” says his mom. Fully appreciating that the emotional and physical journey he was embarking on was not a solo voyage, Haworth provides a sympathetic platform to those around her, and interviews are painfully honest.
While Haworth’s family take up a suitably large amount of footage, her docu is, in many ways, a love letter to Malgosia. Though the marriage couldn’t survive the transformation, it becomes clear Haworth is still very much in love with her ex-wife, and Malgosia herself displays an unexpectedly high level of supportive warmth and generosity.
Unlike most autobiographical docu helmers, Haworth has a degree in filmmaking, and her thorough understanding of the medium results in a well-edited portrait smoothly interweaving talking heads with homemovies while steadily moving forward both chronologically and emotionally. Humor is another unexpected plus, picked up on by brief animated segments (“How to Be a Girl,” etc.) that provide just the right amount of leavening.