Offbeat feature debut blends drama and documentary techniques.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Part of the Sundance 2014 world dramatic competition, 52 Tuesdays is the heartfelt narrative feature debut of Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde. Hyde’s documentary background informs this story of an Australian teenager whose mother embarks on a year-long, female-to-male gender transition. James (Del Herbert-Jane) requires space from her 16-year-old daughter Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), but the two agree to meet for a few hours every Tuesday. Hyde shot the film on similar terms, gathering her performers once a week for a year, making time itself a driver of the film’s dramatic essence.

Hyde handles her theme lightly, allowing for welcome idiosyncrasy

Though initially Billie responds to her mother’s announcement with the unlikely, quippy ease of a sitcom character, as time passes she begins to process (and relate to) the experience as a documentarian would. If the set-up is rough going (Billie goes to live with her father, played by Beau Travis Williams, who has an equally inscrutable attitude toward James’s determination to live as a man, as James begins testosterone injections), early snippets of Billie’s video diary, darker in tone, suggest the story will develop beyond the novelty of its conceit. James also turns to the camera, searching for evidence of change in her body, her voice, her mood. Both mother and daughter use self-documentation as a kind of divining rod, as though their own images might point toward a more authentic way to be.

Contemporary ideas surrounding authenticity—living one’s truth, best selves, etc.—often spiral into cliché, but Hyde handles her theme lightly, allowing for welcome idiosyncrasy. Here James’s life forms a kind of shadow to Billie’s, as mothers often become colourless, shapeless obstacles to their teenage daughters. Though we are told Billie idolises her mother, the terms of their relationship are murky from the start. By the time James confesses to a new lover that he wishes, despite Billie, that he had been born a man, the statement’s essential betrayal has less force than it might have. The tone and emphasis of the story is uneven, which makes sense given the film’s unique creative process. Though it leads to some surprises and keeps its episodic form fresh, that unevenness tends to compromise the film’s central relationship.

Billie seeks out two older schoolmates (Imogen Archer and Sam Althuizen) and through them begins to investigate her own sexuality. The couple become part of Billie’s amorphous documentary project, which now includes scenes of underage sex and video diary musing on how much can change in a year—a country might descend into civil war; a teenager might lose her virginity while her girlfriend watches (to repeat one awkward juxtaposition). Cobham-Hervey gives Billie a persuasive sensitivity, and successfully plays out a transition almost as dramatic as James’s. Yet because they don’t quite cohere the stakes of the story don’t feel as high as they should. Week by week, however, 52 Tuesdays moves with offbeat grace, carried by the chemistry between assured performers and a fearless director.