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SIFF: Romeos - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF: Romeos
Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

German director Sabine Bernardi offers a stunning feature film debut with Romeos, an acutely insightful and delicately portrayed story of a young female-to-male transsexual. It's been 12 years since the last major film portrayal of an FTM, but the difference between that film (also excellent) and this one is that Boys Don't Cry was all about the tragedy: It built up to a truly horrific climax, leaving the audience nothing less than stunned.

Romeos is much more subtle, and far more interested in the details of how a person in mid-transition deals with all of their relationships -- family, friends, romance. Lukas certainly endures a litany of struggles, and much of the film is spent with a lingering since of possible dangers for him. It's to the film's credit that this story is about Lukas eventually finding his way. This is much more coming-of-age than tragedy.

That's really what makes it unique. Bernardi attended the SIFF screening of the film, and noted that she had been working on a documentary about FTM transsexuals and was inspired to write a fiction film about it because she didn't see it being portrayed anywhere else. It's not hard to find movies these days about men transitioning to women, but going the other direction is virtually nonexistent -- particularly for a film with this kind of tone and theme.

And she could not have found a more perfect young actor to cast than Rick Okan as Lucas. Only after the screening was it made clear that Lukas was played by an actual young man; the many scenes in which he is seen bare-chested with breasts feature prosthetics. For such a small-budget film, the prosthetic and makeup job is incredible. Combine this with Okon's soft facial features, and his extraordinarily nuanced performance, and it's easy to assume he's actually a woman playing a woman transitioning into a man. Bernardi said she felt it was important Lukas be played by either a bio-man or an actual FTM, and whether or not that would be true in any other case, with Okon it made all the difference.

Lukas's circumstances are such that he's falling for a super hot gay playboy named Fabio (Maximilian Befort, getting gay gym bunny superficiality down pat) while living in doing civilian service, and 11 weeks before the operation to get his breasts removed -- which, incidentally, the German state insurance covers. Romeos deftly tackles some of the most important issues at hand without getting overtly political; the film opens with Lukas discovering he's been placed in the female dorms because his paperwork says he's female. Although the ignorant dorm official makes clear that there is work yet to be done, it's fascinating to see how circumstances play out -- believably -- in Germany as opposed to how it would be likely to happen in the U.S. The women in the dorm, for instance, just take it in stride that there's an apparent young man living amongst them.

Lukas's best friend, Ine (Liv Lisa Fries), comes along for the civilian service, seeing him now for the first time since before he began his transition and they were simply best girlfriends. They meet Fabio while going out with some other friends, and a string of flirtations follow. Fabio, who is in the closet but has gained a reputation of being all style and no substance within the gay community (I don't know about in Germany but in the U.S. most of the gay community would have no problem with that), seems to find Lukas oddly alluring. He also finds himself bemused by what seem to him like mixed signals, not least of which is Lukas's tendency to hold his arms over his chest like he's cold or wear jackets even in warm weather.

The secret of Lukas's identity inevitably comes out -- in a somewhat shocking scene that is the only time we see his own family -- but it comes out earlier than expected, and perhaps the last third of the film is devoted to how the characters adjust. It seems Fabio, albeit with a healthy dash of clearly internalized homophobia (and trans-phobia), just might have more substance than he seems.

All of this is intercut with Lukas documenting his transition online, and sharing stories with other transgendered people on the Internet. These are the only moments when the dialogue is in English, and Rick Okon is utterly convincing as his character in both languages. Truly, I can't praise this guy's performance enough; it's Oscar-caliber and it's a tragedy that this is the kind of small film that easily gets overlooked. One can only hope it gains some traction in the U.S.; at the moment it's far too early to tell, as the SIFF screening happened to be its U.S. premiere.

Sabine Bernardi has crafted a rare gem of a film, all the more astonishing in that it's her first. It's about a very specific person with a rather rare set of circumstances, and yet Bernardi has infused a surprising universality into the process Lukas goes through. Best of all, even though it wisely acknowledges the difficulties people like Lukas face (one of his Internet acquaintances is shown with bruises from having been assaulted), it doesn't end badly. This is a movie that reflects how things are slowly but surely moving forward, and ends on a perfectly executed note of hope.

Maximilian Befort and Rick Okon bond a bit unconventionally in 'Romeos'.

Overall: A
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