Trans is yet another example of a fine first feature by a well-trained young American film artist. Julian Goldberger has made a couple of features since (A Thousand Guns and The Eulipion Chronicles, 2002 and 2003), which I haven’t seen, but Trans marks him as a promising filmmaker. Shot on 16mm stock, it’s about a 16-year-old’s adventures as police hunt him down after he escapes from juvenile detention lockup in southwest Florida, by way of a roadside work detail. He is desperately trying to get passage to somewhere in Colorado, to reunite with his mother, and now he has a gun. Goldberger wrote the script from an original story by himself, Michael A. Robinson and Martin Garner. This is the film that beat Adaptation to the swamps.
The film is divided into two parts: pre-flight and flight. Prior to his escape, along with two other boys on the work detail (who quickly ditch him), the focus is on the inhumanity at best, and the barbaric cruelty at worst, that detainees suffer in the state’s juvenile detention facility, which apparently exists only to punish and crush the spirit of young, vulnerable detainees. On the basis of the film’s restrained, unmelodramatic portrayal of life and discipline in the facility, I would say that the state is doing one helluva job.
One example of the regimen to which the boys are subjected is a daily morning roll call, where each, standing at attention, responds to his name as it is read by the officer in charge who is standing at the front of the room and, as part of this response, addresses the officer at least twice as “sir.” Horrifying. It’s understood that the boys aren’t permitted to “talk back” to the officer in charge, but of course it’s by “talking back” that kids learn to speak up, which they will need to know how to do if they ever are to become functioning citizens in a democracy. By-rote displays of humiliating respect: what might that teach them? This military-style obedience that the detainees are required to master is intended to counteract their lawless, egotistical ways. (Let’s face it: in the case of adolescents, especially boys, the distance between individualistic and “lawless” seldom requires much of a leap.) But the egotism of adolescence is a necessary means by which kids build, or invent, their individual personalities. There are indeed limits that society must impose on what people can and cannot do, and it may sometimes be necessary to be educative in this regard; but it’s hard to see how the boys here, including the protagonist, are being given either effective guidance or education. They’re simply being punished for being kids—a point stressed by the fact that we never learn the “reason” why any of them has been incarcerated. (Realistically, we know that their “crimes” are minimal, of the sort for which kids used to be spanked by parents, because the sad truth is that kids who today commit “serious” crimes are usually tried as adults.) And there is something else that’s resonant about the roll call. The officer in charge is an African American. The protagonist is white; his friends in detention are white. By the grace of the state employment system, a black man is given the opportunity, in a restricted setting, to oppress whites in a manner suggestive of the way that blacks are still being oppressed by the larger society in which whites, the majority, are in charge. The black officer is lucky to have a job, but regrettably the job diminishes his humanity by exploiting his capacity for meanness in general and racial vengeance in particular. Alas, whether consciously or unconsciously (or somewhere in between), U.S. society often proceeds in this way, turning groups of people against one another so that they miss the affinity of oppression that they share. Later, the same point is made positively rather than negatively when a group of black teens befriends the white boy on the lam, offering him a place to sleep, for example. His lack of racial bigotry is just one of so many behavioral things about the boy that endear him to us. He’s a good kid, and that makes all the more gripping and socially telling that we see him, because of the desperate situation he is in, turn into (with regards to a kind woman who gives him a ride, in part to assuage her own loneliness) a cold-hearted thief. Remember Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)?
The boy’s name is Ryan Kazinski. I love the ethnicity of this. (Would a Goldberger have it some other way?) I love the ethnicity of Kazinski because it blurs the boundary between inside and outside, “real American” and pariah. Moreover, this blurred boundary helps make explicable the shared dedication to hip hop among American youth, black and white and whatever else, that 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002) leaves unexplored and unexplained. Goldberger is analytical of this as a sidelight in his film; a white rap artist is at the center of 8 Mile, but the film never gets around to analyzing the phenomenon. Trans proceeds by analysis; 8 Mile, by sentimentality.
One of the most moving aspects of the film is Ryan’s relationship with his younger brother. Both are fatherless, and their mother is in Colorado, leaving the younger brother on his own now that Ryan is incarcerated. Their relationship covers both Ryan’s pre-flight phase and flight phase. We learn, from Ryan’s voiceover, that he nearly drowned his brother when they were both much, much younger; I suspect that Jon—I’ll call him that, because Ryan Daugherty plays Ryan Kazinski and his real-life brother, Jon Daugherty, plays Kazinski’s younger brother—is all the more devoted to his brother for that near-fatal event. In any case, Jon bicycles the long stretch to the detention facility to provide Ryan with cigarettes and, once, when Ryan is locked in solitary confinement (an underlit cell in which there’s nothing for him to do but go crazy), is turned away, as though he deserves to be punished along with his brother. Later, after he has escaped, Ryan visits Jon for a place to sleep before he tries setting off for Colorado; Jon, unable to have his brother stay for a spell during which he will again become too firmly attached to him, implores him to leave at once after beseeching him to turn himself in. State heads should roll for what we see children being put through here. (However, given that America is America or that, at least, Florida is Florida, those state heads will get medals.)
Even theft doesn’t provide Ryan with the means of making it by bus to Colorado. He ends up in the sky, in a private airplane, after the gun in his hand, at his side, convinces a freelancing pilot to take him up. (A lovely touch: Ryan, by the circumstance that the state has unfairly put him into, has become a thief; the gun that Ryan doesn’t use suggests, on the same basis, his capacity, as gentle as he is, if circumstances sufficiently provoke him, to become a murderer.) This event brings to a crystalline point Ryan’s fervid wish for freedom.
Unlike Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), from which Goldberger borrows, Ryan is an elemental character, not a complex one. Ryan’s odyssey, while distinctive and not trite, isn’t, like Doinel’s, massively moving. Nor can his flight borrow the resonance of the two Jewish schoolboys’ flight from authorities, after they have fled a train transporting them to a death camp, in Jan Němec’s agonizingly suspenseful Diamonds of the Night (1964). For the record, both Truffaut’s and Němec’s films, like Goldberger’s, were first features.
Apparently I’m in the minority in thinking that Ryan, shot by the police, is, in fact, expiring up in the plane. Regardless, being left there, as in the film he in fact is, more decisively, if lamely and less compellingly, in effect ends his life than the combination freeze frame-inward zoom “traps” Doinel, ending his life, at the seashore at the end of The 400 Blows.
We all have a right to be free—at least absent some compelling reason otherwise. Certain nations, like the United States, try too hard too often to deprive individuals under their power of the freedom that nature, reason, God, what-have-you, rightly and righteously insists they should have. Trans is a small film, but its theme is immense.
My description of the finale suggests the film is less than perfect. It is. It is a minor work, to say the least. Still, it’s an arresting, touching, splendidly executed piece of work. Trans deserves credit for being as good as it is. It won for Goldberger a prize at Berlin.
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