Eye For Film >> Movies >> Birthday Boy (2021) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Alex (Sebastian Emmerson) is having a birthday. It doesn’t feel very special. His mum is makling the same fruit flan that she makes every year, and although at some point in the recent past he managed to tell her that he’s transgender, he doesn’t know how to tell her that he hates flan. He’s similarly reticent to tell her that he’s being bullied. As she continues to send him to a gender-segregated school where he’s taught in the girls’ classes, how could she possibly understand?
The worst of the bullies is Elle-Louise (Selma Alkaff), a girl with troubles of her own who copes by indulging in spite, backed up by one of those popular girl cliques who rule the roost in many schools (and sometimes elsewhere). One gets the feeling that she’s especially resentful of Alex because her boyfriend Henry (Ted Reilly) enjoys hanging out with him – when Alex will let his barriers down and extend enough trust to make room for friendliness.
There are complicated emotions at work here. As is common among young people even when they don’t have the language for it, even when there has been no public coming-out, the other students can sense Alex’s gender. Elle-Louise seems less affected by any kind of sexual jealousy than by that anger that develops in teenage girls who think a boyfriend is someone whose attention they should have at all times, and who resent him wanting to spend social time with his male peers. The bullying involves a mixture of misogyny and hatred of boys, of the other, as the girls police the boundaries of their gender and their gendered space – even though Alex has nowhere else to go.
Birthday Boy does an excellent job of picking up on the microaggressions that affect kids in these situations, from the teachers’ persistent use of the wrong name to address Alex to the looks that the girls exchange as he passes by. Emmerson, who is trans himself, does an excellent job of showing us the crushing effect of this experience without losing the more nuanced expressions we need to connect with his progress through this specific day. This is more important because there isn’t a great deal of nuance in the story, but viewers will be pleased to hear that this isn’t just another example of the tragic trans lives trope that filmmakers are so fond of, and Alex may experience some happiness on his birthday after all.
There’s some structural awkwardness here of the sort that’s common when relatively inexperienced filmmakers try to pack a lot of ideas into a short, but it’s well shot and the acting is decent all round. It’s good to see filmmakers undeterred by the notion that a character being trans is too much to handle in itself, and trying to tell a more complex story.
Also important here is the way that the story reflects the world of online gaming as a refuge for teenagers who don’t fit in, something that viewers from many different backgrounds will be able to relate to. The private school setting allows for some reflection on the pressures that come with privilege, but Alex is there on a scholarship, and there’s a hint that class prejudice may factor into the way he’s treated. In other words, these are rounded characters, well presented, and if the film sometimes struggles to live up to its ambitions, it deserves respect for trying.Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2021