Documentary Review: BFFs since childhood, transitioning as adults — “Jack & Yaya”

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Imagine growing up in working class South Jersey, struggling with your sexuality in  a world of blue collar jobs, gun clubs, plentiful alcohol and classic rock.

Imagine realizing that “gay” wasn’t going to cut it for you, that you didn’t “want to be somebody’s ‘girlfriend,'” because you don’t feel you belong in the body you were born with.

Now imagine having a neighbor, growing up next door, your lifelong best friend, and that he is as ready to change genders and pronouns as your are.

“Jack & Yaya” is about a Jacqueline who figured he was “Jack” since his family started shortening his name, and a “Christina” who was born Christopher, and realizes that dressing up and winning drag shows as Yaya DaLight and “identifying” as a woman isn’t enough.

Jennifer Bagley’s debut documentary is an upbeat portrait of best friends propping each other up, urging acceptance on each other’s families and ensuring that even as they transition, the road to “it gets better” is a short one. She charts that lifelong connection, a support system of two that, upending expectations and stereotypes, was quickly almost as large as their extended families could make it.

Jack’s great uncle Eddie laughs and takes a break between pulls on his Bud bottle to lay it all out there for Jack, the neighbor kid, and Chris, his niece, and anybody else who’d care to listen.

Chris deserves his unconditional love and support. And “I loved him (Jack) ever since before he was NOT a him!”

“All you need is frickin’ love!”

It hasn’t been utterly painless, especially for Chris. A mother who cried “I don’t want no one to kill you,” had nervous breakdowns and died young of cancer, a father who bristled (at first) at the “tranny” Chris/Yaya became.

But we hear testimonials from family, going back generations, including two understanding grandmas. Yaya’s Catholic grandma Patsy just shrugs and notes, “I had a lot of gay people in my family.” She had little trouble accepting Yaya or Jack as they were.

“Put yourself in their place.” Sure, she worries about “where’s he gonna go when he dies?” But she can’t imagine a hell for someone “doing what comes natural.”

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It’s funny hearing Jack’s mother Jo Ann go on and on about “It was right there in front of me,” all the “signs.” “But I didn’t have a CLUE.”

Yaya and Jack recall swapping presents at Christmas with the line, “Santa got the wrong house” as their excuse. Jack didn’t want dolls and purses, he wanted “a billfold, like his daddy.”

The serious side of “Jack & Yaya” details the barriers to transitioning — medical to simple name-changing (far easier in many states than it is in New Jersey).

Jack, who moved to Boston, notes running into homophobia and trans-phobia “even in a big city.” And Yaya, filmed mostly in front of her makeup mirror, laments having to “fight with your body every single day.

And the two of them are managing all these struggles on service sector wages,  which can’t make it easier.

But the take-away from generally sunny “Jack & Yaya” is, despite Yaya’s occasional protests to the contrary, that it’s gotten “easier.” Decades of families confronting these issues have broadened acceptance, from “hiding” or simply not talking about “funny” relatives, to accepting kin for who they are, making that leap to “All you need is ‘frickin’ love.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, some profanity, alcohol.

Cast: Jack, Yaya, their families.

Credits: Directed by Jennifer Bagley. A Hewes Pictures release.

Running time: 1:23

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