It’s like an Annie Proulx short-story cycle come to life: Four middle-aged transgender women, leading double lives in harsh and hyper-masculine terrain, gather their courage and take steps to come out as their true selves after decades in the closet. Set against the backdrop of logging communities dotted across the Pacific Northwest, “The Pearl” follows three narrative strands that only once intersect, relying on common situations and rhyming themes to make the sum greater than its parts. Directors Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca spent four years on the project and they’ve achieved a palpable feeling of intimacy and trust with their subjects, but their stories come together in a patchwork narrative that falls short of its intended power. LGBTQ festivals and micro-indie distributors should take an interest, but “The Pearl” will be hard to pry out of its specialized shell.
Dimmock and LaMarca open with the striking scene of a trans woman in a darkened parking lot, wriggling out of menswear and into clothes more suited to her feminine self. It’s like a crude version of Superman in the phone booth, but even though her true identity emerges from the car, it is not her public face. She is Nina, but her wife of nearly 40 years knows her as Reinhardt, a pizza deliveryperson from British Columbia. Throughout the course of “The Pearl,” Nina inches toward full realization, even introducing herself to her mother, but she worries about pressing the limits of what her wife can bear.
Krystal and Jodie are siblings from Washington who spent decades as brothers before the startling mutual revelation that each had been living as women simultaneously. Their progress in coming out varies sharply: Krystal, once confined to the windowless dank of an auto-body shop, becomes more confident with the curtains open, but Jodie’s job keeps her on the road, which presents a set of dangers that aren’t so easily worked around. In Oregon, Amy is a widow who uses the extra bedroom in her home to welcome young, transgender misfits who have been ostracized from their families and communities. She calls it “Amy’s Outhouse,” and even has a snappy slogan (“where you come to come out”), but her vision of a surrogate family takes a turn.
“The Pearl” briefly unites its subjects at the annual Esprit Conference in Washington, where closeted transgender women come together for a weekend of meetings, social engagements and, primarily, the freedom to live as women without anxiety or consequence. The conference is a fascinating bubble in itself, but the film breaks off into discrete strands once Nina, Krystal and Jodie, and Amy go their separate ways. For Dimmock and LaMarca to gain access to women who have kept their identities secret for so long is a significant privilege, which makes it all the more disappointing to see that opportunity squandered.
Though Nina’s story comes closest to full actualization, “The Pearl” paints an incomplete picture, missing a more tangible sense of the hardships these women experience — and have experienced — at home and in the inhospitable culture around them. The one dramatic confrontation in the film has Amy returning to Oregon after a triumphant gender reassignment surgery, only to find her home in a state of disrepair. Her moving speech to her surrogate family gives the doc its title, but Dimmock and LaMarca are never embedded long enough to soak in the dysfunction at “Amy’s Outhouse,” so the sting of her words is muted.
The four subjects are eager to tell their stories and they give access to extraordinarily intimate moments, like Amy’s surgery or shots of Nina changing in the back of that car. Dimmock and LaMarca are also present for several brief, euphoric scenes where they catch the excitement of trans women drinking in the possibilities of a changing world. But “The Pearl” feels like they’re either missing footage or have sloppily assembled the footage they have, because its individual notes never quite harmonize. It ends with the gnawing sense that all four women have much more to reveal.