One day after the release of Changing the Game, a documentary from Michael Barnett about young trans athletes, Florida joined South Dakota, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Montana and Alabama in signing transphobic legislation restricting transgender athletes from public school sports—all passed within the last year. Texas Democrats prevented a similar bill from becoming law only a few weeks earlier. These hateful policies and would-be policies, pushed by spiteful far-right groups, have no support at the higher levels of the sports that they claim to protect. Changing the Game sharply explores these regulations, and discrimination in general, through the eyes of these athletes themselves. As you might expect, rampant misgendering and the Fox Newses/Joe Rogans of the world pop up throughout the spread-thin doc, but the film and its subjects confront hate and love—from those in the crowd and from themselves—head-on with bold intimacy and respect.
These subjects’ experiences span the U.S.: Texan high school champion wrestler Mack Beggs is stuck competing against the wrong gender, while New Hampshirite skier Sarah Rose Huckman and Connecticuter track runner Andraya Yearwood face their peers. Barnett’s got the directorial patience and savvy to sit back and let his subjects simply be endearing teens. They vlog, gossip, smooch, goof off. Aside from being generally entertaining, allowing them the space to do so serves a dual purpose: Those looking (or perhaps simply needing) to learn will find ample, detailed high school humanity awaiting them, while those ready to root for the kids but less inclined to invest in the sports themselves can get swept up in their Olympic-level enthusiasm and dedication.
Exciting and well-framed workout photography from Barnett and 30 for 30 alum Turner Jumonville splits the difference. The sweaty, muscular vigor with which they shoot kettlebells, jump ropes, starting blocks and ski wax is enthralling and empowering in equal measure; an extreme close-up of manicured nails flipping a tire becomes an understated rebellion. Whether Changing the Game finds its athletes in private preparation or at the gym, its admiring eye when it comes to physicality and effort can’t help but feel all the more pertinent as those it observes discuss and confront body-based struggles. Dysmorphia, self-harm, hormones—these are common teenage troubles exacerbated and magnified by a certain part of the population’s obsession with who’s going in what bathroom. We get plenty of examples, be they self-righteous interviewees or talk show hosts running their mouths, but they’re always overshadowed by the kids themselves.
While everyone is open and candid, Mack and his family steal the show. He’s got a girlfriend (who’s crushing hard), a deputy sheriff grandma and a grandpa whose RaceTrac fountain drink addiction will resonate with many raised in the south. Both his grandparents are conservative and both trying their damnedest to use the right pronouns. The vulnerability the Beggs give Barnett—from the complex growing pains of an older generation to a bittersweet trip down memory lane’s old photo albums—shows an impressive level of trust from all involved.
Most of this comes from Mack himself as he works his way back to the state championship in the film’s central narrative. Footage of his matches follows sports radio chatter amiably discussing his suicide. Boos roar in the auditorium. Here, Changing the Game’s point is most salient: Those booing would boo no matter what. They’re booing easy targets. They’re booing the letter of the law while supporting those enforcing it. The hypocrisy of it all would almost be funny if it weren’t so cruel. And that cruelty, not Mack, is clearly depicted through convincingly edited storytelling as the cause of the very real pain and unfairness accompanying Mack’s ascent. How would these results be different, how would the scholarships be divvied up, were Mack allowed to wrestle his male peers?
Naturally, Mack is the target for the rage, not the schools. Not the lawmakers. “I’ve definitely been bullied by more adults than kids,” Mack says. “It’s pretty sad.” At least he’s got his burly coach, whose gruff support echoes his grandparents: “I didn’t even know what ‘transgender’ was before Mack, but I would never turn my back on an athlete.” Unanimous support from their guardians on and off the track/mat/slopes helps make Changing the Game as inspiring as you’d hope, but the on-screen statistics (which are often inelegant and almost always superfluous after so many news clips, teary speeches and candid confrontations with angry spectators) make it clear that most stories aren’t quite as heartwarming. Even with this trio, it would’ve been disingenuous to make the film a through-and-through feel-good story, but it’s about as close as you can get without shying away from the pervasive ugliness.
In fact, an entire documentary could’ve been sustained off of Mack’s wrestling season alone, as his amusing family life, high caliber performance and unfortunate place in the spotlight create such compelling drama that the other folks in Changing the Game have a hard time living up to it all. They’ve got their own sweet coaches, their own loving families, but they never coalesce like the more conventional “we’re going to state” storyline. That leaves the doc feeling unbalanced and unfocused, as neither Sarah nor Andraya follow the easy narrative of their sports’ seasonal competitions. Though Barnett allows both girls moving and compelling arcs (one as an intentional activist, one as an unintentional inspiration) to emerge from their more repetitive sections, you’re always left wanting more—especially from the women of color. The brief runtime (less than 90 minutes) is extremely watchable, but isn’t enough room for the film to be everything to everyone like it wants.
We’re left with a moving, activist sports documentary that soars and stagnates in equal turn by its ambitions. Its wide-ranging stage-setting—its need to unpack the discrimination faced by all trans student athletes, and by trans people in general—may slow the film down, but it’s a necessary and normalizing step. A step that makes it so that when Mack or Andraya or Sarah get their own 30 for 30s, the movies won’t have to do the same thing. A step that makes it so that when a ninth state considers passing anti-trans sports legislation this year, lawmakers and their constituents will be able to see the wrestlers, skiers and runners—the kids—it will affect. The movie’s goal is Changing the Game, after all. The sports doc finds plenty of beauty and excitement befitting its genre in its uphill battle, even if it sometimes tries to wrestle above its weight class.
Director: Michael Barnett
Release Date: June 1, 2021 (Hulu)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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