Directors Harrod Blank and Sjoerd Dijk's newest documentary hits close to home and right in the gut with the unflinching tale of Albuquerque-based trans woman Rusty Tidenberg, an endlessly upbeat and fascinating mechanic, tinkerer, inventor, athlete and intriguing figure handling the aftermath of her transition. Blank and Rusty became friends through the art car circuit, an underground movement of strange and creative cars, including Blank's semi-famous camera-clad van, work on which Rusty performed some years ago and which kicked off a friendship and working relationship that lasts to this day.
Blank takes us from Rusty's childhood hunting and camping with her man's-man father, a real estate developer who laid the foundation for the family-owned trailer park that Rusty manages. We see her at work, but also follow to nearby ski slopes, drag racing competitions, desert dirt biking sessions and appointments with doctors; we get a full look at her existence, learning that she writes poetry and autobiography in her free time, that she's got a little bit of the performance bug; that her father may not understand her transition and keeps his distance.
We learn of Rusty's youthful realization that she was sexually attracted to women, but also envied their breasts, how she came to have her own and why she clings to certain hypermasculine elements of herself. But as the film progresses, we see her phase from being fine with he/him pronouns to preferring she/her. This proves one of the more interesting facets of the film—Rusty is old-school and unfamiliar with the ins and outs of trans terminology, but she knows who she is and learns as she goes, making this maybe one of the best and most candid examples of gender fluidity in film that we've ever seen. Elsewhere, interviews with grizzled mechanic types prove that it's never too difficult to lose the transphobia and that our friends are still our friends no matter how they identify.
Why Can't I Be Me? Around You does meander at times, from Blank's inclusion of himself into the story to scenes that seem to serve no purpose, but its clip meshes well with Rusty's manic behavior and energetic goings-on. We begin to care for her deeply, understanding her loneliness but realizing that it's a price worth paying to live as one's authentic self. This should be required viewing for anyone with questions about trans folx.
+Open and honest; ultimately positive
-Slow in places; even Rusty says transphobic things
Why Can't I Be Me? Around You
Directed by Blank and Dijk
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 93 min.