A teenage girl’s sexual awakening coincides with her mother’s gender transition in “52 Tuesdays,” an Australian indie with an unusual narrative gimmick: It was shot over 52 consecutive Tuesdays, and only on Tuesdays, to capture a year of life onscreen. Boasting breakout talent both in front of and behind the camera (tyro director Sophie Hyde picked up a helming prize at Sundance), this accessible and mildly provocative drama could do sturdy arthouse business in the U.S. and other English-speaking territories.
Sixteen-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) has always enjoyed a close relationship with her mother (Del Herbert-Jane), which is why she’s particularly shocked to come home from school one day and discover Mom locked in the bathroom, dressed as a man. The transition is about to become permanent, and during the yearlong adjustment period, Billie’s mother — who now asks to be called James — sends Billie to live with her father, Tom (Beau Travis Williams). James promises they’ll spend every Tuesday evening after school together, and Billie reluctantly agrees.
So begins a year of major changes for both Billie and James, recorded not just by the film we’re watching but also by their own video journals. Billie finds herself drawn to a couple at her school — Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmin (Imogen Archer) — and slowly establishes a friendship that turns into sexual experimentation with both of them, most of which she films for an ethically dubious art project. Meanwhile, James begins testosterone shots and takes up with a co-worker, Lisa (Danica Moors), while keeping the relationship secret from his daughter.
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Hyde and screenwriter Matthew Cormack favor Billie’s fairly conventional arc over James’ less explored experiences, but throughout the pic there’s a welcome emphasis on the parent-child relationship — something that perhaps surprisingly changes very little despite James’ physical transformation. James remains fiercely protective of Billie, never more so than when Billie’s racy videotapes surface. And Billie goes through the typical mood swings of a teenage girl, some weeks refusing to visit James but also demonstrating how much she cares when he suffers a setback that sends him spiraling into depression.
The non-pro cast received their scenes one week at a time, and the choice lends their performances a compelling blend of discovery and authenticity. A thoroughly beguiling newcomer blessed with offbeat beauty and natural charm, Cobham-Hervey makes a potentially irritating character a pleasure to spend a year with, even when she’s at her most selfish. Althuizen and Archer similarly leave vivid impressions that suggest greater opportunities ahead, while Herbert-Jane (who identifies as non-gender-conforming offscreen) is entirely credible in a nuanced role that still leaves the audience wanting more.
After a few initial questions from Billie (“Do I call you dad now?” “If you’re with [a woman] are they are lesbian or are they straight?”), James’ transition becomes a secondary concern and feels strangely underdeveloped considering the film spans such a lengthy period of time. “52 Tuesdays” instead attempts to explore the fluidity of gender identity in more delicate, less penetrating ways, from Billie’s own experimentation to a whimsical scene of her family donning pirate garb and facial hair for more farcical role play. That may also be the reasoning behind the effeminate affectations of James’ obnoxious brother, Nick (Mario Spate), who lives with him and encourages Billie’s worst behavior. More compelling are the short, docu-style segments of James interviewing other trans individuals during a brief vacation to San Francisco, and Billie watching a YouTube confessional of the daughter of a transgender woman.
Nevertheless, the pic serves as a promising calling card for Hyde and close collaborators Cormack, producer Rebecca Summerton and d.p.-editor Bryan Mason, all part of the South Australian creative collective Closer Prods. (also behind the 2011 Sundance competition documentary “Shut Up Little Man!”). Their shared vision is evident in the film’s intimacy and tonal consistency. While the unique achievement of filming once a week for an entire year may have been overshadowed at Sundance by Richard Linklater’s even more ambitious “Boyhood,” “52 Tuesdays” still demonstrates a willingness to experiment that bodes well for future endeavors.