ACADEMY football is a highly pressurised environment for youngsters – and their parents.
It represents a make-or-break opportunity for those blessed with enough talent to have a shot at reaping the eye-watering financial rewards of a professional career in the beautiful game. The possibility of winning a lucrative Premier League contract, in particular, is a lofty dream many families are willing to risk all for.
But for 14-year-old Charlie – the focus of Rebekah Fortune’s film Just Charlie – the opportunity to join Manchester City’s prestigious academy comes at a time when his own identity crisis supersedes any thoughts of the fortune to be made from the Premier League.
Charlie (Harry Gilby) knows that he is a female born into a male body. Uncomfortable in his body, Charlie takes a bin bag of his sister’s old clothes into the woods to try them on. It is in these out-of-sight moments that Charlie can be himself – better still, herself.
This liberated Charlie is a far cry from the dejected one that gazes out of the car window as Dad ,Paul (Scot Williams), drills home the life-changing importance of Manchester City’s offer. ‘You are just going to have to man up’ – Paul says without knowing the deeper irony of his statement.
Paul is the classic overbearing football dad, pushing and prodding his son to heal the wounds of his own footballing disappointments. He is a well-written – and well-acted – character that is typical of a film which showcases a wealth of British talent. Props to Fortune, writer Peter Machen (who also plays Charlie’s considerate football coach) and their entire crew.
Paul is so invested in pushing his child on the pitch that he completely misreads Charlie’s struggle off it. That is until he catches Charlie in full make-up, a sight of his Premier League dreams going up in a feminine puff that provokes him into a violent reaction. Truly troubling viewing.
Fortune’s film follows the ripple effects of Charlie’s gender change as responses of ignorance and vitriol take their toll on the family. Bar the odd exception, most people are not prepared nor tolerant enough to at least try to understand Charlie’s true self. This includes extended family who are quick to detach themselves from the situation, schoolkids who laugh and call Charlie names and even Charlie’s new female football team who bicker about the issue. Where Charlie has found her identity, others have found a reason to be disgusted and outraged.
Mum (Patricia Potter) and sister (Elinor Machen-Fortune) remain concerned and supportive of Charlie – even if Paul starts to become a withdrawn figure. There is a great shot of him standing in the distant doorway detached from his family as they sit around the dinner table. It highlights his self-imposed isolation from Charlie’s struggle and his family.
Like many others, Paul can only see Charlie’s struggle through his own self-interested lens.
Just Charlie is an educational, emotional and – at times – enraging experience. But if Fortune’s film tells us anything, it is that we should approach the subject of gender with open minds and compassion. If we fail to do so, future generations will be gravely ashamed of us.
Just Charlie is available to watch on Sky Cinema
This is review 19/30 in April’s Close-up Culture Monthly Challenge – Female Filmmakers.