Seahorse

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Seahorse
"Finlay has a good eye for the details that help us connect to people and places." | Photo: Mark Bushnell

If there's one fact about seahorses that almost everybody knows - often from childhood books of facts - it's that the males carry the developing young. Often this is described as a pseudo-pregnancy because the eggs are fertilised outside the body and then drawn up into a special pouch - but then what is a womb if not a special pouch for developing young (including, sometimes, embryos conceived in glass dishes)? Nature has lots of tricks up its sleeve where reproduction is concerned. Human societies, on the other hand, have long cherished much narrower views of how it ought to be done, so that the idea of a man carrying a child is seen by many as outrageous.

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth is a film that tries to get beyond the shock and sensation to tell a very personal story about one man's journey to fatherhood. That man is Freddy McConnell, whose name you may have encountered in the media due to his subsequent court battle over his child's birth certificate. He's lucky in that because he's transgender he has a uterus, and despite the popular myth that taking testosterone causes infertility he is able to conceive fairly easily - but that's only half the battle. Over the months that follow we see him struggle with relationship problems, mood swings amplified by dysphoria, and a system that just wasn't built with people like him in mind.

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Director Jeanie Finlay sticks close to her subject and what starts out as a slightly confusing melange of scenes dealing with different aspects of Freddy's life gradually coheres into a solid story. You won't need to know anything about trans people to make sense of it and much of what it deals with is universal. Most of Freddy's worries will be immediately relateable for anyone who has gone through a pregnancy (or had a partner do so), whilst his mum provides an additional perspective, taking it all in her stride and keeping him grounded. The close relationship that he has with her and with his sister adds a lot of warmth to the film and is a good thing to see given how often stories about trans people focus on family breakdown and isolation.

The ordinariness of much of what we see in the film doesn't make it less interesting. Freddy is easy to like, even when - as he sees it - he's making a bit of an idiot of himself. Finlay has a good eye for the details that help us connect to people and places. This approach also helps to bring out the small moments of sadness and feelings of exclusion that stem from people failing to understand Freddy's situation - moments that trans viewers will relate to strongly but that will be visible to most others for the first time. The result is powerful, a kind of translation between his world and that of the majority - the sort of thing that every documentarian aims for but few manage to capture.

The idea of men giving birth may be sensationalised, politicised, even ridiculed, but there's none of that here - just an intimate portrait of family and friends gearing up for a new arrival. It's a gentle film full of hope, and a timely plea for recognition of shared humanity.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2020
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Charts a transgender man’s path to parenthood after he decides to carry his child himself. The pregnancy prompts an unexpected and profound reckoning with conventions of masculinity, self-definition and biology.

Director: Jeanie Finlay

Year: 2019

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: UK


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