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Review of "Normal"

By Jane Anderson (Director)
HBO Video, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 6th 2005

Normal is a well-constructed film with fine performances about Roy, a husband who after 25 years of marriage reveals to his wife and pastor in a counseling session that he was born in the wrong body, and he is a woman. He says that he is agony and he wants a sex-change operation. The film shows how him working through his wishes, eventually transforming his public appearance, wearing jewelry and a dress. He goes through difficult times with his wife and two children and also his workplace, but eventually they come to find a way to live and work together.

The basic plot is fairly straightforward, but it has nice some subtleties. Roy and Irma have a 13-year-old daughter Patty Ann (wonderfully played by Hayden Panatierre) who is entering into puberty, and who dresses like a tomboy, and Irma starts insisting that she be more feminine, as if Roy's change in gender might be infectious. Later on in the film, it is touching when it turns out that Patty Ann is in fact more able to relate to the struggles Roy is going through in learning to become a female because she is going through similar changes herself. When Roy starts taking hormones, both he and his daughter act like moody teenagers. This is one of the many humorous moments that run through the film that help lighten the tone, and provide a contrast with the darker sides. The most difficult part of the story is Roy's relationship with his inconsiderate and unpleasant father. His father belittles his wife and son in front of the rest of the family, and we see how desperate this makes Roy feel. But the story is silent on whether the father's constant attacks on Roy's masculinity played any role in making him reject his maleness.

Another theme is the role of their pastor, the Reverend Muncie, played by Randall Arney. He at first tries to find ways to convince Roy to change his mind about being a woman. The well-meaning Reverend is rather clumsy in his efforts, looking in the Bible for advice about what to do, but Roy in unconvinced. The Reverend also subtly places blame on Irma for Roy's strange behavior, which puts him in a bad light. Both Roy and Irma are long-standing members of their church and they are good Christians. Yet Muncie is unable to prevent the negative reaction of his congregation when Roy attends church dressed as a woman, and soon Roy stops coming on Sundays. Overall, the film paints the church in an unsympathetic light, maybe having good intentions yet not really making an effort to accommodate Roy's difference once he reveals his true self.

Roy's relationship with his rocker son is maybe the weakest aspect of the film. Wayne left home several years ago and tours with a band. When he gets a letter from his father about getting a sex change operation, he mocks it, reading it out loud to the band. At the end of the film, Roy and Wayne get into a fight and then have a tearful resolution, which was not very credible. Of course, it is true that men have more difficulty with different sexualities and it is certainly plausible that Roy's relationship with his son will be strained. That's a difficult relationship to portray and the film is rather swift with it, using the confrontation and making up to provide a convenient and slightly trite ending. It is hard to cover all aspects of transsexualism in one film, so it is not surprising that to some extent it is rather unconvincing.

I was a little disappointed that there was no scrutiny of the way that Roy explains his feelings, and no uncertainty about his "being a woman in a man's body." It is clear from the plot that much of his explanation has been molded by the books he has read about transsexuals, but there is no exploration of other ways of expressing his feelings about his body and his gender, or the possibility that our concepts of gender are inadequate for the complexity and diversity of human experience.

The strength of the film is more in its particulars, set in the corn belt of America, in a conservative community. The small details of houses, food, decorations, clothes, and verbal mannerisms are done very nicely and make the depiction far more real. In her director's commentary, Jane Anderson talks about many of the decisions that were made in casting and set design. She discusses the feedback she has received on the film and some of the difficulties they had to deal with in making it. She emphasizes how wonderful the performances by Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson are, and she is exactly right. Both actors really transform the film into a superior piece of work. The two of them manage to make the idea that the marriage can survive Roy's change entirely believable.

2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.