Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"What Del Monte has put together is, overall, a film that stands out for its positivity and warmth."

She was raised as Matt. At the height of her fame, the world knew her as Kroc. Now she lives as Janae Marie, and she's getting to know her authentic self for the first time. But Michael Del Monte's documentary is no routine transition story. Having been one of the most famous bodybuilders in the world, Janae faces the difficult task of reconciling her hard-earned strength with a world that sees femininity as innately small and delicate. At first she seems faced with an impossible choice between two parts of herself. As time goes on, the picture starts to look more complicated.

At a time when trans people's lives are the subject of intense public speculation, it's refreshing to see a film that sets aside the conventional narrative of somebody 'born in the wrong body' going through a tough but straightforward process of coming out and eventually having surgery. Janae's life is messier; it's something that cannot be understood as a collection of tropes but only as the experience of a human being. When we meet her, she has already been through several abortive attempts to transition. She misses the weightlifting too much and she has crises of confidence about her physical appearance. Aside from anything else, her strength is what has made her feel safe through all the years of her being aware of herself as an outsider, even when only a small number of others were aware of it. But having been publicly outed in 2015, she refuses to live in shame or try to go back into the closet.

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Janae is the kind of trans woman whom transphobes try to stereotype as a monster, associating her muscular appearance with every species of potential male threat (which wouldn't be nearly as threatening if it were that easy to spot the dangerous men). When we see her in gym gear with no wig or make-up, especially during the first half of the film, she looks, indisputably, like a man - but that's the point. When she presents herself in a feminine way, looking a lot less awkward than she seems to imagine, she isn't changing what's inside - it's just that the outside never matched what people expect of that. And she's acutely aware that the belief that women have to look a certain way is damaging to many millions of people, beyond what it does to her.

If all this sounds like hard going, you'll be surprised. What Del Monte has put together is, overall, a film that stands out for its positivity and warmth. Janae's relationship with her sons, all of whom have been aware of her gender since she was young and fully support her, is delightful to see. They're happy, clearly well-adjusted kids getting on with life, no longer paying attention to a camera they've grown used to - messing about on a river or playing computer games. Janae's honesty is the kind of thing documentary makers dream of and her humour is always there, hinting at the inner strength it took to build that body in the first place. She's warmly accepted by many in the bodybuilding community and we see something of what she has meant to her fans over the years, including young trans men striving to acquire impressive muscle. Though we are never really formally introduced to the bodybuilding community, its omnipresence enables the film to take a look at another group often negatively affected by outsiders' assumptions but wonderfully comfortable when doing their thing.

Ultimately, Janae's journey provides a vehicle for a film that asks questions about how all of us understand ourselves, set priorities in our lives and either strive for authenticity or learn to perform accepted roles for others. It's a film full of spirit and charm and, by ditching the old simplifications, opens up new narratives to help those who struggle to understand what it is to be trans. We're all human first.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2018
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Transformer packshot
A documentary about Janae Marie Kroczaleski, a world champion bodybuilder who went through a difficult transition to express herself as a woman.

Director: Michael Del Monte

Writer: Michael Del Monte, Paul Kemp

Starring: Janae Marie Kroczaleski

Year: 2017

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: Canada


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