It is hard to think of a more generic title for a romantic comedy than Boy Meets Girl, although the newest film from writer/director Eric Schaeffer (If Lucy Fell) is much more unique than its limp name implies. The title does not refer to a meeting between two people of different genders, but the merging of gender identities. Protagonist Ricky (Michelle Hendley) was born a man but identifies as a woman. As a child, she dressed up in gowns for Halloween. In high school, she ditched football for fashion blogging and dress designing.
In a time when greater awareness about the transgender community has created much more cultural acceptance, watching Boy Meets Girl feels both liberating and limiting. That liberation comes from Schaeffer’s openness to delve into questions of gender, identity and sexuality, However, familiar plotting, characters and dialogue limit the depth of the drama. Regardless, one can be thankful that a film like it exists, despite its glaring flaws.
The aforementioned Ricky lives in small-town Kentucky and dreams of working as a designer in New York. As she awaits acceptance into a college program, Ricky serves coffee at a local shop for little pay. One afternoon, she begins to flirt with Francesca (Alexandra Turshen), the daughter of a devoutly religious Republican senator. Ricky’s comments about sex shock her customer, yet Francesca is soon smitten. The two become close friends, even after Ricky reveals that she is transgender.
Ricky’s fiancé, U.S. Marine David (Michael Galante), does not approve of this new relationship. In a Skype address from Afghanistan, he spits at Francesca, saying he isn’t fighting for a country where someone like Ricky can be free. David knew Ricky in high school and was one of many students who vilified her for being a “tranny.” The only close friend who stuck by her side was country boy Robby (Michael Welch), who enjoys speaking with Ricky about sexual matters. To the film’s benefit, Schaeffer’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from explicit conversations about sexual performance and body images, blush-worthy moments that are much more risqué than the cheap-looking film would suggest.
In another of the film’s best scenes, Ricky’s adorably younger brother, Sam (Joseph Ricci), asks her if it’s ok that he likes to play football and has more stereotypically masculine traits. Sam grew up in a house where gender boundaries were not always clear. Despite his minimal screen time, Sam is one of Boy Meets Girl’s most fascinating characters, part of a generation that will grow up with a broader knowledge of the extensions of sexual orientation.
Boy Meets Girl is a low-key film about a hot-button topic, but it doesn’t dance around the complex feelings and confusion of a transgender woman falling in love. Much of that is due to Hendley’s terrific performance. In her debut role, the actor capably goes through deep emotional territory without ever needing to raise her voice. During an encounter with Francesca that starts to become erotic, we can see her character think about how far to advance and whether she is doing the right thing. Meanwhile, Ricky is a stoic character pushing through the shame that others in the community try to make her feel, and Hendley gives off pride without pushing for unneeded theatricality.
Hendley’s performance, warm and witty, is the grace note of a film that too frequently forces routine rom-com conventions. Progressively, all of the supporting characters turn into caricatures whose feelings correspond more to the mechanics of the plotting than to what we know about them as people. Francesca is a good girl engaged to be married, yet her feelings quickly curve toward embracing Ricky (in the most literal sense). The same is true for Robby, who nurses an attraction to his lifelong friend yet randomly shifts into an angry fiend when the screenplay calls for a misunderstanding to separate the two companions. Meanwhile, the less said about the bigoted David and Francesca’s stiff, conservative parents, the better.
At several points during the story, Schaeffer calls back to a viral video Ricky made when she was a teenager trying to adjust to bullying and victimization in a small town. It is a clip of a 15-year-old version of the character, holding up cards with blunt sentences about her feelings. This flashback is bruising and harshly inspiring, yet the film also abuses this backstory in a didactic montage near the end that becomes mawkish rather than powerful. Meanwhile, despite the private details the video contains, characters easily find the folder with the clip on Ricky’s computer – yet another story contrivance.
Boy Meets Girl is an inconsistent comedy-drama that shifts from being honest and humanist in one scene to cloying and clichéd in the next. Still, an ace cast of young breakthrough actors elevates the mediocre material purely by the strength of their chemistry. It’s hard to deny that there is a refreshing sweetness and candor in the talks between Ricky and close pals Robby and Francesca that makes this story something of a treasure, even if several of the plot turns and character decisions should extract groans from rom-com lovers.
A formidable young cast bring potent emotional power to Boy Meets Girl, a rom-com with a refreshing premise that too often settles for formula.