Paul Lyndsay (Scott Williams) just wants to give his children what he never had, and in the case of only son Charlie (Harry Gilby) that’s a career in football to spare him a future wasted toiling in factories. So when a talent scout approaches Charlie after a game with a lucrative contract his father can’t understand why the boy isn’t more excited about it. Charlie’s dissatisfaction, however, is rooted in gender dysphoria: she identifies as female, and after years of denial is finding it difficult to hide her true feelings any longer. As Charlie begins to transition with the support of her mother (Patricia Potter) and sister (Elinor
Developed from their 2011 short film Something Blue, director Rebekah Fortune and writer Peter Machen reunite for Just Charlie, a Midlands-set meditation on gender, identity and acceptance that marks a tremendously assured feature debut from the former and strikingly authentic character study from the latter. Shot in Tamworth, Middle England, the film treats its subject matter with commendable mundanity, neither seeking to sensationalise Charlie’s struggles or to trivialise her experiences. Instead, Just Charlie is a small, sensitive and understated relationship drama that expands its focus beyond Charlie to follow her friends, family and football coach as they either adapt to or deny her new reality. Gender is a cultural more, after all, so it makes sense to examine it at a community level.
Having seemingly dismissed Charlie’s gender bias as child’s play, with Paul at one point insisting that his son simply “man up”, it isn’t until Charlie resorts to self-harm following a confrontation over a recent episode of cross-dressing that the question of identity is even addressed. For Charlie nothing has changed, she feels as she has always done: female, but for everyone else nothing is ever likely to be the same. For mother Susan and sister Eve the situation is made suddenly, unambiguously clear, and both are quick to support Charlie’s decision to begin hormone therapy, even when it threatens to impact their own lives and relationships, whereas Paul struggles to accept it from the outset, sparing himself any initial awkwardness with co-workers but bringing him into direct conflict with the rest of the family. Williams and Potter shine in their scenes together; both heartbreaking in their humanity.
Gilby, even more so, is absolutely phenomenal as Charlie, undergoing a profound physical and emotional transformation without ever once losing sight of his character in the process. It’s a tremendously astute and progressively unselfconscious performance from someone so young, and Gilby commands the screen in every scene he’s in. There is a sequence towards the beginning of the film, in which Charlie is forced to wear a suit to a wedding, in which her discomfort and distress is palpable; cloyingly, claustrophobically so. Direction, scripting and cinematography undoubtedly play a part, but it’s Gilby who ultimately sells the compulsion and eventual catharsis of changing out of clothing you feel trapped and restricted in. It’s a relatively small moment, at least in comparison to the more emotional and dramatic upheavals to come, but it perfectly captures the experience at its most universal and relatable.
As a title, Just Charlie is perfect: this may be a film with a transgender protagonist but really it’s just about a person. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fortune’s film is that it dares to be unremarkable — or that it does so quite so remarkably.