For at least half the running time of “Soldier’s Girl,” director Frank Pierson and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s account of the killing at a Kentucky military base in 1999 of a G.I. emotionally involved with a transgendered nightclub performer is as pedestrian as telemovies come. But pic recovers in later reels, boosted by superior performances and a powerful final act. Sketching the relationship with persuasive integrity, the drama quietly builds a sense of indignation over policy regarding gays in the military and the inadequacy of mental health screening for soldiers trained to feed their aggression. Exposure at gay festivals seems certain in addition to a strong reception on cable.
The true story of unsophisticated, learning-disabled G.I. Barry Winchell (Troy Garity) and Calpernia Addams (Lee Pace), a Nashville drag entertainer en route to sexual reassignment, inevitably will draw comparisons with films like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The Crying Game.” The fundamental difference here is that the ostensibly straight soldier is aware almost from the beginning that his lover started life as a man and still has some of the parts.
Pierson and Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) devote an inordinate amount of time to by-the-numbers scenes of grueling military training and to less-than-sensational drag numbers before focusing more intimately on the central relationship.
Dragged along for a laugh to a gay bar by a bunch of his airborne infantry buddies, Barry meets Calpernia and is immediately drawn to the exotic creature for her beauty and warmth. She in turn responds to his gentlemanly manner, marveling that a handsome straight boy would want to see her again. Despite confessing to being white trash underneath the makeup, Calpernia is an intelligent, sensitive woman, who prior to starting sex reassignment was a Navy combat medic during the Gulf War, with a higher rank than Barry.
As their tentative courtship overcomes some initial nervousness and progresses to sex and love, the relationship between Barry and his unbalanced, pill-popping roommate Fisher (Shawn Hatosy) also undergoes changes. Issues regarding Fisher’s sexual identity and psychiatric problems and the exact nature of his closeness to Barry drive increasingly manipulative behavior designed to damage his friend.
Fisher begins spreading unspecific rumors about a gay soldier around the base, which starts a campaign by the infantry’s hard-ass drill sergeant (Barclay Hope) to flush out the culprit. While underlining the heinousness of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Nyswaner is careful not to demonize the entire institution, presenting a voice of reason and fairness in sympathetic Sgt. Diaz (Andre Braugher).
The drama’s well calibrated climactic chain of events kicks in as Fisher insidiously exploits the tension between Barry and Glover (Philip Eddolls), an Oklahoma redneck barely old enough to qualify for the Army. An altercation between Barry and Glover blows over, but Fisher keeps turning the screws and then walks away, leaving Glover to simmer before exploding into stunning violence. The killing is effectively intercut with Calpernia lip-synching to Annie Lennox’s “Cold” in a transgender talent pageant.
While the filmmakers’ approach for the most part is blandly conventional and takes far too long to introduce any real edge into the situation, the drama improves immeasurably as it goes, becoming both affecting and upsetting. The aftershock to the murder also resonates in more unexpected ways, as Calpernia’s loss segues to a new sense of self-worth.
Both Garity and newcomer Pace give complex, controlled performances, full-bodied and richly empathetic, making the union between this unlikely couple seem entirely plausible and natural. Hatosy and Eddolls also register strongly with incisive depictions of two dangerously unmonitored, volatile misfits, each of them scary and stupid in different ways.