Movie Review: Transgender anti-heroine says “Open Up to Me”

She wasn’t always a cleaning lady. And from the liberties she takes with one client’s lipstick, makeup and clothes — trying them on — you’ve got to wonder if this is a job she’ll hang on to for long.

Still, she’s educated and put together well, and you’d never know her financial and employment situation at first glance.

So when a patient at the psychotherapist’s office she cleans mistakes her for “an associate” of the doctor, reaches out in a sort of resigned despair upon learning the doctor has just left town for two weeks, Maarit listens and puts on her compassionate face.

And seeing as how Sami is kind of cute and wounded, she does more that feign sympathy. She’ll have a session or two with him.

“Can you keep this between us?” is her condition. Oh, and one other thing, Maarit used to be Mauritz. She’s transgender. Is that going to be a problem?

That’s the implausible and highly ethical set-up to “Open Up to Me,” a Finnish drama with a trangender heroine (played by Leea Klemola) we’re supposed to root for, but who is plainly problematic.

She is discriminated against, something we pick up on in job interview scenes and one brutally bigoted encounter with police. She hasn’t openly identified as a woman for long, so she’s just now figuring out how that sort of courtship might work and who might be “into” who she is now and who she was before.

“My problem is I’m too honest,” she tells one prospective employer (in Finnish with English subtitles). That goes for her love life, too.

But damn girl, this isn’t how you do it — pretending to be a shrink, listening to a lonely soccer coach (Peter Franzén) lamenting how cold his marriage has turned, how he’s seeing a shrink at the insistence of his control-freak wife (Ria Kataja). That’s downright predatory.

Writer-director Simo Halinen puts Maarit in a hole, straight off, and takes the dramatic strategy of building sympathy for her afterwards. She’s estranged from her daughter (Emmi Nivala), employed far beneath her station. She used to be a school social worker.

And she’s not just counseling Sami, bonding over football (most implausible of all, they once played against each other in junior leagues) and flirting. She’s “open” with him about being transgender and he’s accepted that, and isn’t repelling her advances.

But she’s also stumbled into his wife Julia under the same circumstances (at that office) and given her advice, too. That is lawsuit level out-of-bounds and makes it that much harder to sympathize with our heroine.

And she needs sympathy. When the cops call her in, what they’re questioning her about is plainly more a potential civil liability. They’re just grilling her, using her abandoned name, as harassment.

Maarit’s obsession with “my needs” and her desires has blinded her to what she’s put her daughter through, as well.

Writer-director Halinen has picked a slippery fence to park his picture on, showing us a little romance mixed with a few ugly attitudes. Many wincing moments, such as teen soccer tyro Teo’s blunt “Are you a man or a woman?” question to Maarit on their first meetings, are defused, in that case, with Teo’s Italian macho flattery.

“You kind of dig your body too much,” Teo (Alex Anton) tells her , “the way Finnish women never do.”

Klemola, a veteran Finnish actress, gives the barest hint of gender dysphoria, and is just convincing enough as a woman who used to identify as a man. We don’t hear about surgery or hormones, any of that. The movie’s far more interested in her midlife mental adjustment to the change.

She’s focused on what she wants to the exclusion of how that might hurt others. She’s a tad aggressive.

Maarit is not bellwether transgender character, and not necessarily that likeable. Her daughter pops in for a visit, and Maarit leaves the teen in a parking garage at night while she runs upstairs to change.

Maybe in Finland that’s OK, but come on.

That makes Maarit something of a trailblazing figure in transgender cinema representation — not pitiable or annoying and grating, in an over-compensating way. She’s just selfish and reckless, something everybody else is to a greater or lesser degree.

MPA Rating: Unrated, sexuality, profanity, adult situations

Cast: Leea Klemola, Peter Franzén, Ria Kataja, Alex Anton and Emmi Nivala

Credits: Scripted and directed by Simo Halinen. A Corinth films/Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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