2017 Film Essays

Spectatorship and the Camera: Sophie Hyde’s ’52 Tuesdays’

Coming of age stories are prevalent within cinema, art and literature. Teenagehood is the bridge between childhood and our adult life, and the films which try to capture this moment present a state of flux, or transition. The journey from childhood to adulthood has been covered extensively in popular cinema, so much that it’s now a specific genre. Sophie Hyde’s debut feature, 52 Tuesdays, captures this state, but with a significant twist. It examines two important life moments — a daughter forges her adult identity, and her mother embarks on a transition to become a man.

The stories intertwine, weaving towards and away from each other throughout the film. Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and James (Del Herbert-Jane) meet once a week (on a Tuesday) for a year. James explains that his transition will be easier for all of them if Billie is not around, and so Billie is sent to live with her estranged father for the duration. Consequently, 52 Tuesdays runs two parallel stories, which cross over every now and then, feeding into one another. Just as Billie is only allowed a glimpse into James’ life once a week, viewers are only allowed limited viewing of the their interactions.

For another layer of authenticity, Hyde only filmed once a week for a year — you guessed it — on Tuesdays. This element explains why 52 Tuesdays, though fictional, often has docudrama undertones. The characters, and actors, grow and change in real time, resulting in a rather unique and overwhelmingly genuine experience for the spectator.

Billie’s teenage “transition” to adulthood and James’ transition are solidly rooted in perceptions. Throughout their narratives, both characters become heavily invested in using cameras to record themselves at various stages of the year. James wants to track body changes, to keep a record of how far he has come. He pours over video clips of himself, scrutinizing every angle and becoming angry when he doesn’t get the expected result. The revelation that James’ body is rejecting testosterone becomes another blow, making the video diary experience even more painful. Instead of seeing progress, he sees only dissapointment.

Billie, on the other hand, begins by filming her two friends and keeping irregular video diaries which are later intercut into her own personal film. She sees herself documenting a journey of self discovery, adulthood and a newly formed sexuality. Billie documents her story just like James; they are both spectators in their own narrative.

As the year passes, the documentation becomes more explicit. What begins as a friendship with two older school friends (Josh and Jasmine) slowly descends into a sexual exploration. Billie eventually loses her virginity on camera, and proceeds to film sexual acts performed by her two friends. Billie is somewhat of a voyeur — she watches Josh and Jasmine perform sex acts on each other before she decides to befriend them, and her eventual participation can be read as a transition in itself.

Billie also changes physically. She cuts her hair shorter, changes her style and reacts differently to James and her family members. While James’ issues with transitioning and testosterone mean that his surgery is indefinitely delayed, Billie succeeds in carving out a new identity. Just as Billie discovers herself, James discovers that his journey may be harder than imagined, if not impossible.

Though James’ decision to have Billie move out isn’t taken lightly, it’s clearly the catalyst for Billie’s spiral. Photographs reveal how close they used to be, and Billie ultimately feels like she’s being rejected. It’s a difficult situation, yet Billie is only 16 years old. James removes the foundations of Billie’s life in order to live his own. Is it selfish? Or is James justified, having spent his whole life living a lie?

Hyde expressed that she never intended 52 Tuesdays to be a film about being transgender, rather she wanted it to be a film about a family going through a year together. To this end, Hyde succeeds. James’ transition is never a problem to be solved, or something that his family needs to reconcile with. Instead, it deals with mother-daughter relationships and the strain when families pull in different directions.

In addition, Hyde manages to successfully avoid the potholes inherent in the recent trend of cisgender directors and actors commandeering trans stories (The Danish Girl, Transparent and Dallas Buyers Club, to name a few). Hyde actually allows her characters to speak for themselves. Through the cameras, Hyde gives the characters autonomy to tell their own story. Billie and James can change how the audience views them. Their thoughts and feelings are not limited or oppressed.

With a masterful sense of direction, 52 Tuesdays triumphs by turning the camera around to create a self-reflexive and unique film.

Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.

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