When you’re a child, one of the most maddening things adults always say is how fast children grow up. If you’ve only lived a few years, it takes forever: The powers and privileges that come with being older are at once tantalizing and infinitely far away. Yet when the child’s lifetime is a fraction of yours, they change drastically if you look away for so much as a day; in the case of transgender childhood, moreover, even the subtlest transitions are seismic. Sharon Liese’s documentary “Transhood” maintains an artful bifocal perspective, capturing both youthful impatience and parental whiplash as it tracks the physical and emotional development of four trans children over the course of five years. The title’s evocation of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” can’t be accidental: In nonfiction form, Liese’s film aims for similarly striking, sensitive time-lapse rewards.
Coming as it does from the HBO Documentary stable, “Transhood’s” future release path is assured. Even if it weren’t, the film’s bright, humane approach to a subject of increasingly everyday prominence would assure it a broad audience. It’s as comfortably suited to festival programs (indeed, it premiered online as part of the Hot Docs digital lineup) as it is to the progressive classroom, as educational to children as it is to adults still absorbing the language and politics of an ever more outspoken movement. While wholly sympathetic to the cause, “Transhood” isn’t just a work of blandly cheery activism: Liese frankly observes the practical obstacles and psychological swings endured by its four young subjects and their families, sometimes to upsetting effect.
The families in question have little in common but their location in Kansas City, not a bastion of liberal values and thus a critical choice of location: The nervous tension between the kids’ personal explorations of identity and the Christian-right conservatism that surrounds them is suggested throughout, occasionally flaring up in overt acts of discrimination. “Transhood” leads with its most prominent subject, Avery Jackson, a rainbow-haired preteen transgender girl who became something of a symbol for the movement following her appearance on a National Geographic cover in 2017. She’s introduced as a precocious, energetic 12-year-old in 2019, at the end of the five-year documentary process: “I started off not really knowing who I was then — I was just a kid,” she says. The full rigors of adolescence may lie ahead, but a lot of living has already been done.
Yet as the film rewinds the clock to 2014, seven-year-old Avery seems more assured of herself than most. Supported by her parents Debi and Tom, she’s already giving confident radio interviews about her gender identity at age seven. Further press looms, as does a picture book deal, with her parents eager to publicize Avery’s story as encouragement to less secure kids in her situation. It all seems well-meaning, but “Transhood” tacitly queries the line between activism and exploitation, not least when Avery’s magazine cover prompts a grim cascade of online abuse. As the years pass, Avery’s enthusiasm for her platform wanes: “I’m not Avery, I’m filling in,” she says tetchily upon being dragged to another book-signing event, as her parents question whether they’ve let her have enough of a childhood.
Avery’s degree of celebrity would be unmanageable for Jay, introduced as a 12-year-old transgender boy just starting to take hormone blockers, who keeps his assigned birth gender a secret from everyone at school — including his girlfriend. His single mother Bryce, herself a queer woman, offers empathetic tough love while fearing that his covertness is a “ticking time bomb”: Sure enough, when his peers learn the truth against his will, the ensuing emotional fallout is severe, making for the film’s most discomfitingly candid material.
15-year-old Leena, a transgender girl with designs on a Victoria’s Secret modeling career and reassignment surgery after high school, is more strategically selective with the truth. Her parents, friends and boyfriend accept her for who she is, though viewers will perceive obvious fault lines in her relationship with the latter well before she does; the Kansas-based swimwear line that recruits her to model for them, however, is less open-minded when she reveals her trans identity. Leena shrugs off their rejection with heartbreaking aplomb: Over the film’s five-year timeline, alongside a world of physical changes, we see the subjects’ skins thicken before our eyes.
Avery, Jay and Leena all have clear, if occasionally sidetracked, arcs toward self-realization. Less certain, and most fascinating, is that of four-year-old Phoenix, assigned male at birth, who veers over the course of the film from a self-declared “girlboy” to identifying as female or male at different stages. Liese depicts Phoenix’s uncertainty and changeable nature, entirely understandable at such a tender age, with gentle grace. Far more unnerving is the extreme alteration of his mother Molly, whose ideological stance on transgender identity shifts radically in the course of a half-decade split by Donald Trump’s rise to power.
Abetted by Dava Whisenant and Nick Andert’s supple editing, “Transhood” excels in fine-grained, day-on-day domestic observation. But it’s intelligently attuned, too, to larger sociopolitical changes in the wind, for better and for worse, as it notes just how much can change — in a person, in a family, in a country — in five years. Children, it turns out, grow up a lot faster than adults.