Heartstone

milkboys Films, Films & Cinema 18 Comments

Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson makes a promising debut in this tender, slightly lopsided study of teenage friendship and inchoate sexuality.

There’s a vast, storm-hued majesty to the jagged coastal edges of Iceland that inspires hushed awe in tourists, armchair travellers and filmmakers alike, but to a teenager growing up — and, more trickily still, coming out — in this brooding idyll, it can seem like a smallest place in the world. That’s the cruelly frustrated perspective shared by two best friends in Heartstone, at least until they realise that they’re no longer experiencing the same coming-of-age crisis. Richly atmospheric the film toggles its main characters’ arcs for a stretch, before giving preferential treatment to the less dramatically challenging of the two. Still, first-time feature director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson steers proceedings with enough serenity and sensitivity to soften stonier hearts in the arthouse market.

In its positioning of the rural Icelandic landscape as a kind of silent, ever-present antagonist to its principals’ progress, Guðmundsson’s formally imposing debut visually and tonally recalls the work of his compatriot Runar Runarsson — whose own somber 2015 coming-of-ager, Sparrows, deployed similar physical terrain to much the same emotional effect.

The boys’ conflicted, even hostile, relationship to their environment is viscerally symbolised in a startling opening scene, which in which 14-year-old Thor and Kristján, together with a group of pals, savagely cull a school of fish in the local dock, plucking them from the water and bashing their heads on dry land. This kind of hormonally fevered destruction is what passes for fun in their sleepy maritime village, where Thor lives with his single mother — who has recently, to her children’s aggrievement, re-entered the dating scene — and two older, somewhat bullying sisters. Kristján, meanwhile, weathers a consistent stream of abuse from his hard-drinking dad.

While the two boys have a supportive social circle (including some girls with whom they make halting attempts at romance), it’s clear that they’re the most important people in each other’s lives. Tall, sturdy Kristján, already accelerating into manhood, acts as something of a protector to the less mature, none-too-aptly named Thor — who, in one of several wry observations on the occasional tedium of adolescence, fashions a merkin from hairbrush debris as he waits for his pubic hair to grow in.

But as the kids horse around and venture into tentative sexual explorations, it’ll become clear to audiences — if not quite yet to Thor himself — that Kristján’s devotion to him isn’t purely platonic. For many LGBT audiences, such inchoate, unrequited desires will register as a familiar rite of passage. Guðmundsson maps the subtle, even subconscious, strain this development places on the relationship with tact and intelligence, aided by the open, naturally expressive performances of his two young leads. But as the film drifts further into Thor’s not-quite-comprehending headspace, Kristján recedes into the background, even as his character negotiates a compelling maelstrom of warring feelings and external obstacles — including the homophobia of his own parents, as adulthood comes with its own limitations in this stymied community. To quote an Emiliana Torrini song that Thor’s sisters blissfully listen to: “If it’s so good being free/Would you mind telling me/Why I don’t know what to do with myself?”

Sympathetic as Thor’s journey to awareness is, Heartstone’s languid, rollingly repetitive storytelling never quite justifies its weighted focus on his character at the expense of his friend’s more active anguish; a more judicious edit could place both in sharper relief. (The question of how assured Thor is of his own nascent sexuality, meanwhile, is only skirtingly addressed.) Later, Guðmundsson returns to the fish motif in slightly more contrived fashion, as a bullrout is briefly taken from the water and thrown back in, plummeting briefly before finding its gills. Not everyone in this thoughtful, lyrical, slightly over-deliberate tour of a beautiful teenage wasteland gets his own sink-or-swim moment of catharsis.

The Empress Sword

milkboys Books 4 Comments

With a kingdom to save and a dragon to slay, not to mention the loss of a dear friend and the first stirrings of a childhood crush, transitioning into a female is literally the least important problem on Crown Prince Aster’s mind. See, there’s this dragon attacking Caledon, and the only way to defeat it is to find and wield the mythical Empress Sword—a sword that will not bear the touch of any man. So Aster does what any sensible thirteen-year-old crown prince would do: he gets magical gender reassignment surgery.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that, and Aster doesn’t exactly understand what he’s agreeing to when he grasps the sword for the first time. Nonetheless, Aster becomes Astrid and what had the danger of becoming yet another too-straightforward boy’s adventure book on the shelves swiftly takes on new dimensions. We suddenly have a strong, female protagonist where we once had a slightly naive but endearingly noble male—one who has no problems with it beyond the obvious issues of a changed centre of gravity and a vague sense of “this is new and a bit weird!”

The narrative continues to refer to the prince as “him” because for Aster (as he still thinks of himself—though he quickly realizes that introducing himself by the prince’s name would draw confusion), the transition to “femaleness” is at first only a matter of changing some outward behaviors—like when the prince has to convince people that “he’s” become a girl, but maintains a comfortable male wardrobe, manners, and speech with friends. The prince’s own perceptions of “femaleness” are challenged and turned over frequently, but Aster’s assumptions are the fault of a royal upbringing (and a perception of “maleness” that is also quite skewed due to that heritage).

Aster’s transition is a non-issue in the book, with no broad, overarching statement made about transphobia. There is no fear over body image, shame, disgust, or humiliation—these things are entirely absent from Aster’s transition experience. And that’s a statement in and of itself. The fact that Jaxton doesn’t make a big flurry/trauma/statement about the gender change—nobody calls Astrid gross, unnatural, or a freak when they find out she used to be the prince—is a small but important victory.

In Aster’s arrogant and selfish selflessness, we see the ego of a child who has always been treated like an equal and a grown-up, played fantastically against the condescending humiliation of being a “little girl.” More important is Aster’s realization that people were just as condescending when she was a boy, but in a more subtle way because she was a prince. And Aster has no problems with being a girl in love with another girl.

Aster is also rather egalitarian in other relationships. Aster is good friends with a stable boy and doesn’t see why a merchant’s daughter can’t be asked to dinner, and when confronted with a monster who displays intelligence, actually listens to what the dragon has to say and concedes that the dragon’s point of view and concerns are as valid as the humans’ are. In that moment, the book is elevated from mere adventure story to a tale about equality, compassion, and the basic rights of all people—be they dragons, foreigners with unfamiliar features, or boys in dresses.

In the end, the success of The Empress Sword lies in the normalizing of transgender characters and heroes who treat everyone around them equally, and offering a fantastic quest adventure yarn for young people that teaches as well as entertains.

My 13

milkboys Films, Films & Cinema 6 Comments

Jonathan is in love with Julie. Unable to gather the courage to speak to Julie, Jonathan formulates a plan to steal her diary, which he believes would reveal to him the way to impress his crush. The plan includes befriending Julie’s brother Charles who is Jonathan’s classmate. Thanks to Charles, Jonathan gets an invitation to a party at their house.

During the party, Jonathan manages to steal the diary, excuses himself and heads home to read it. On one of the pages of the diary, he finds a drawn heart and the name …Jonathan. He is overjoyed until he realises what’s really going on…

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Raised Without Gender

milkboys News & Opinions 11 Comments

A new documentary heads to Sweden, home to gender neutral kindergartens and gender non-conforming families, to find out what it’s like to grow up beyond the binary.

With recent victories for the trans rights movement, and more young people defining as something other than “male” or “female” than ever before, Amelia Abraham visits Sweden – arguably the world’s most forward-thinking country when it comes to questioning gender – to find out what it’s like to grow up without the gender binary.

In Sweden, the gender neutral pronoun “hen” has been in the national dictionary since 2015 and is now commonly used by most Swedes. Since 1998, the Swedish government’s school plan has forbidden enforcing gender stereotypes, and government-funded gender neutral kindergartens with gender aware teachers has made it possible for families to raise their children without a set gender identity – something that often sparks controversy in the foreign press.

Amelia spends time with one of these gender non-conforming families, made up of mapa (mum and dad) Del LaGrace Volcano, who was born intersex (both male and female); the children, five-year-old Mika and three-year-old Nico, and their grandma, Margareta. She visits Mika and Nico’s gender aware kindergarten to find out what the teachers and the other kids make of Mika’s gender expression. She also meets Lotta Rajalin, the founder of Sweden’s gender-neutral kindergartens, to learn how they go about deleting gender norms from education, as well as psychiatrist Dr Eberhard, who is against Sweden’s attitude to gender in kindergartens.