A sixteen year old girl (who looks more than a little like a female River Phoenix) returns home from school, her mother is holed up in the bathroom. When she eventually emerges, she’s cut her hair, corseted her body and drawn on fake stubble – that is where Jane’s story ends, and James’ story begins. You wake up every morning, but then there are days when you wake up. Those are the days when you suddenly snap out of it and decide to change your life. Run away from home, quit your job or – in the case of 52 Tuesdays – accept what you always knew deep down but were scared to accept.
While it’s central to the film, Jane’s sex change is far from the only awakening going on. 52 Tuesdays is practically brimming with life affirming changes, both mental and physical. It’s an intriguing mish-mash of ideas and characters – I just wish they’d reined it in a little.
Or a lot, for that matter – 52 Tuesdays is a sprawling jumble of a film which chucks ideas and stylistic shifts around the room like confetti. Ambition should never be put down, but the movie spends much of its over-stretched runtime trying to shout before it can speak. As I followed Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) through a year in the topsy-turvy and life of a teenager forced to grow up early, I found myself asking the kind of questions I really shouldn’t be asking in a grounded social drama:
Wait – is that her uncle or her brother?… How does this apparently deadbeat uncle/brother have the keys to an incredibly spacious house-cum-art project? Is that meant to be Billy’s Dad? And what on earth is going on with his accent?
And so on.
This sense of confusion may be a reflection of the malaise that plagues the film’s central characters, but there’s no need to alienate the audience in the process. Hard-hitting, low-key dramas don’t need to go on excessive flights of fancy to impress, if anything they serve to detract from their real world setting – it’d be like asking Ingmar Bergman to direct an adaptation of Look Back in Anger. The downbeat, very human story of James (Del Herbert-Jane), and his struggles with such an all-encompassing transition, plays in stark contrast to a somewhat strange set of borderline Lynchian segments in which Billie films herself and two school-friends in various states of coitus. An excess of precocious screen teens is irritating at the best of times, and the fact that none of these scenes are properly explained didn’t exactly aid my feelings towards them. While Sophie Hyde, the film’s director, evidently aimed to create a fever dream of crossed wires and adolescent bedlam, 52 Tuesdays just ends up feeling like a bit of a mess.
Herbert-Jane remains a stalwart presence in the midst of all this cinematic blurring, with her assured presence on screen belying her lack of experience. James has spent his whole life never quite sure how or where to fit in – yet, now that he’s finally worked that bit out, life keeps trying to drag him away from the person he wants to be. It’s an unshowy performance packed with internal conflict and uncertainty, and it’s the only part of 52 Tuesdays that feels genuinely real.
I really didn’t want 52 Tuesdays to be a chore, and its sensitive treatment of gender identity and (admittedly misplaced) sense of ambition makes it all the harder to for me to accept that it is a chore. I didn’t want to have to struggle through the final 20 minutes – hoping that every static shot was the film’s last – but I did, and I feel pretty bad about it. Its heart is in the right place, but its feet aren’t – when the film should leave you to engross yourself in a tremendously human set of characters, it instead keeps trying to whip the rug from under your feet. And just like that, the story of one family’s struggles with change ended up becoming a bloated mish-mash of the unexplained and the occasionally irritating.
Ambition should never be chided, but 52 Tuesdays spends most of its runtime trying to shout before it can speak.