There’s an adjustment period facing the average viewer for those first few minutes of Billy Porter’s high school trans-romance “Anything’s Possible.” It’s not unlike what one experiences diving into a film from a foreign culture, in a genre you can’t quite peg, starring actors you’ve never seen before and in a language you don’t understand.
You can be a bit unmoored by it all.
It’s not the subject matter of “Anything’s Possible” that made me disconnect. The entire enterprise seems artificial, even leaving out the omni-present “gender issues.”
When a dad character in the movie jokes about his primping teen son’s piled-high pompadour — “‘Grease’ auditions today at school?” — that’s kind of what’s on the screen, a lot of Actor’s Equity veterans playing high school kids, just the way Olivia and Travolta did it back in the ’80s.
Porter, a Broadway and TV (“Pose”) star, cast his film with stage actors and a social media influencer as his star. So it’s a dewy-youth coming-of-age story that feels like “Grease,” or those filmed youth-oriented stage musicals Disney+ televises, only with feature film production values. The older-than-they-should-be actors require some extra “suspension of disbelief.”
None more than our heroine. As Kelsa, a clothes horse adored and accepted by her divorced doctor Mom (“Hamilton’s” Renée Elise Goldsberry), the trans woman, influencer and TV actress (“Sideways Smile”) Eva Reign speaks in a thoughtfully-considered, deep and adenoidal affectation that belies whatever age Eva is using today.
When she moved from St. Louis to New York, her birth name and gender were tossed away, and so apparently was her birth certificate.
Her performance is polished, subdued and very much controlled, a world-wise actress with a lot of perspective playing an innocent, just-figuring-everything-out-for-the-first-time youth. It’s an affectation piled on top of other affectations, each one further removing the character from a connection with the viewer.
Think of the transgender turns in “Orange is the New Black” or “Tangerine.” Those performances felt organic and natural. This feels like pose-as-performance.
As Kelsa vlogs about transitioning — at 17 — in high school, about her favorite exotic animals, and muses about her “existential despair,” the viewer can wonder “What high school kid talks like that, with that voice in command of a vocabulary that wholly articulates one’s gender dysphoria and ‘despair? At 17?'”
It’s almost a relief when her BFF Em (Courtnee Carter) blurts out “I broke my finger on accident” later in the movie. That’s one characteristic of authentic high school speech — grammatical boners.
The rest of the movie — like life itself, like high school, like your hormonal teen years — is kind of messy, something you muddle through.
She’s on hormone suppression therapy, she reveals, but is far enough along and above all MATURE enough to ponder moving on from knowing “what I need to survive” to figuring out “what I need to THRIVE.” Kelsa is wrestling with all this on her semi-secret (Mom doesn’t know about it) vlog, to “help others” by sharing her experience of transitioning and just getting through high school.
Kelsa has a zoology degree and becoming a nature film camera operator among her life goals. Boys?
“Why have a boyfriend when I have two best friends?”
That would be the tall fashion plate Em and the boyfriended hipster Chris (Kelly Lamor Wilson).
Em’s got her eye on cute Khal (Abubakr Ali). But Khal is noticing the attention-grabbing blend of fashion and femininity that is Kelsa. Not that he can tell his gay-intolerant pal Otis (Grant Reynolds) that.
Kelsa gets to turn her attention from herself with a “Not EVERYthing is about gender” as she wonders, “How do you know when you officially have a crush?”
And Khal finds himself and others challenging and questioning his attraction. Is he is just in this for “the ‘woke’ points?” Kids in high school aren’t just known for “experimenting.” They’re infamous for the stand-out-from-the-crowd posturing.
“There are a lot of men who’re attracted to trans women,” Chris growls at him, “but when it gets down to it, they’re not down...to get to it.”
Each member of River Point High’s most talked-about couple loses a friend over their coupling. With outside pressures and out of town college on the horizon, can this relationship be saved?
The best scenes in “Anything’s Possible” aren’t the tender moments, the blush of first love and the chemistry of a first kiss. Because, to be brutally honest, we don’t buy it and those scenes — far too many of them for the film’s own good — simply do not play, not with a couple of 26-31 year olds trying to project an innocence that would only be convincing on the stage, and not in cinematic close-up.
But cute bits work, such as the way Khal courts Kelsa by imitating her favorite nature documentary host, David Attenborough, as he comically comments on high school courtship rituals and the like.
The folks playing the grownups make the best impressions here, parents that range from understanding to defiantly protective, with Goldsberry having an epic shout-off with a fellow parent in a meeting in the principal’s office.
Porter, a first time filmmaker (look for his cameo), tries to get into almost EVERYthing to do with trans issues into this film — bathrooms, and “our space” and J.K. Rowling-styled “socialized male energy” debates about testosterone and what defines a woman. When Kelsa bumps shoulders or gives somebody a shove, she transforms into the equivalent of a pugnacious point guard “creating space,” and that strength, muscle and aggression disparity is very much part of the whole public discussion of that corner of the ever-lengthening LGBTQIA acronym.
All that makes for an unfocused, jumbled movie that isn’t quite settled on what it wants to be, a romance at war with itself, struggling to find its heart while never-really-landing punches in its political debates. It’s topical, but it settles nothing, informative and sensitive in its representations, cute but never cute enough.
Rating: PG-13 for strong language, thematic material, sexual material and brief teen drinking.
Cast: Eva Reign, Abubakr Ali, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Kelly Lamor Wilson, Courtnee Carter, Naveen Paddock and Grant Reynolds.
Credits: Directed by Billy Porter, scripted by Ximena García Lecuona (as Alvaro Garcia Lecuona). An Orion/MGM release via Amazon.
Running time: 1:36