The latest documentary from Harrod Blank, Why Can’t I Be Me? Around You, is a thought-provoking character study of Rusty Tidenberg, a mechanic and inventor who is in the throes of navigating her identity as an out trans person living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Probably best known for his 1992 cult classic film Wild Wheels, Blank has a passion for art cars that leads him to Rusty, a mechanic who self-identifies as a “shemale” and wants to be called by feminine pronouns. Through Blank’s interview questions, her journey of coming out and into her trans identity unfolds.
A fascinating character study.
Rusty is the kind of documentary subject filmmakers dream about. Her daily life takes place in interesting scenes: a bespoke mechanic shop, trailer parks, off-roading parks, drag races in the New Mexico desert. Though the film can feel like a ball bouncing in too many directions to keep track of, that’s also precisely what’s interesting about it: It feels like a direct entrance into Blank’s brain as an outsider investigating Rusty’s experience and considerable heart.
Sexually attracted to women, Rusty’s gender identity leans toward the feminine side of the spectrum but doesn’t entirely exclude masculinity. Rusty knows she is trans but doesn’t always have the language to describe what she is to others and make them understand. Throughout the movie, we see Rusty talking with friends, medical professionals, psychologists and other trans people about the gender continuum as she tries to land on the terminology and conditions that reflect how she feels about herself.
Blank shows up as a character in the story. While he always stays off-camera, we hear the audio of his interview questions, as well as some voiceover narration, and sometimes this feels like an unnecessary shift of focus away from Rusty. At times it is easy to wonder if this is a documentary about Rusty or a documentary about Blank trying to understand Rusty even as she works to understand herself (and free herself from everything that holds her back from being who she is). Ultimately it’s a little bit of both, but Blank removing himself from the story probably would have deepened the film’s impact, not to mention tightened up the edit of a sometimes disconnected narrative.
It somehow feels as if Rusty is actually co-directing at times, and she’s such a captivating figure you can’t help but pay attention. At certain points she speaks in the third person about herself, and at others she speaks from the typical first person point of view, a nice example of the inside-outside theme of Rusty’s relationship to her gender. Scenes in the film find Rusty performing her original work — the film’s title comes from one of her poems — namely a one-woman show where she talks about being trans and seeking acceptance from her community. These are some of the most engaging beats in the doc as Rusty’s exuberance and theatricality translate beautifully to the screen, and one can’t help but be enchanted.
In a lot of ways, the doc is as much about Rusty’s codependent relationship with her conservative father as it is about navigating gender identity. Rusty’s father doesn’t accept Rusty’s gender identity as valid. Indeed, once Rusty came out and had breast augmentation surgery, he actually retaliated by lowering Rusty’s pay in their family-run real estate business. Rusty longs for the acceptance of her father, and also feels trapped by the relationship as she is the property manager at the trailer park that her father owns and he also owns the body shop where she tinkers with her unique cars. The lack of support Rusty feels from her father and the constant friend-zoning from women she’s attracted to often leave Rusty feeling extremely isolated; this is one of the hardest things to witness in the film.
Ultimately, Why Can’t I Be Me? Around You is a touching portrait that reminds us gender identity is a process, and there are no easy answers. Tired of being silent and invisible, trans people of all kinds are open to sharing their stories and simply want to be embraced for the fullness of their humanity.
Distributor: Les Blank Films Inc.
Director: Harrod Blank
Screenwriters: Harrod Blank, Sjoerd Dijk
Producer: Harrod Blank
Director of photography: Harrod Blank
Editor: Sjoerd Dijk
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)