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Soldier's Girl (Frank Pierson, 2003)


    Frank Pierson’s surprisingly modest Soldier’s Girl ventures into the same messy emotional and sexual territory as Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, and was similarly based on a true story, but comes up with decidedly less rewarding results. Narrated by a pre-op transsexual, the film tells the tale of Barry Winchell, a confused Airborne Infantryman who flirts with disaster when he flirts with her. Though the opening scene features an energetic drag rendition of the pop standard “Fever”, the focus quickly moves away from such glamour to establish the conflicting milieus of dehumanization and camaraderie that define the Army experience. When Barry first arrives on the base, he’s discouraged by his fellow soldiers from even using his first name, so, needless to say, frank discussion of his sexuality is not encouraged, especially given the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”. These early scenes feel a little routine, perhaps because they have been done with more aplomb countless times before, but they are more low-key than usual, and because of that reserve they seem more impressive once Barry meets Calpernia, the aforementioned transsexual and the film’s ultimate message becomes apparent.


    Though Soldier’s Girl uses their meeting to launch into a heady account of bewildered young love, it’s the on-base tensions that provide the most dramatic moments. As Barry’s bunkmate, the Iago-like Fisher, Shawn Hatosy is superb because he conveys an unintelligent dependence on routine and an obsessive-compulsive streak as often as he does Machiavellian plotting. The suggestion that lies within the character that the former motivates the latter drives home the ultimate senselessness that leads to the climax. The unspoken dynamic in his character seems to be that the rigidity of Army life provides the balance to his precariously unbalanced mind and Hatosy manages to make Fisher alternately sympathetic, charismatic, and repulsive. Troy Garity, who plays Barry, is almost as good. His character has a slight speech impediment and a learning disability, and to a degree, it’s his vacuity that allows the viewer to make whatever we want out of him. It’s a testament to the actor playing the role that we’re able to find Barry interesting at all. Since Garity treads a fine line in which the character’s sexual and intellectual confusions blur, there exists real complexity in what’s otherwise a rather thin characterization.


    It’s tough to believe that Barry initially doesn’t realize that Calpernia is still biologically male, even if he’s “from Kansas”, since he has friends that are far more worldly than him (not to mention that she sports broad shoulders and man-hands). Thankfully, the possibility that he does indeed know what he’s getting into but is acting coy is raised more than once. Still, this uncertainty in his role is a bit of a liability, since it seems a case of the film attempting to cater to both the conservative and more open-minded audience member. The story begins with Calpernia’s narration, and allows the audience to identify with her throughout, suggesting that is presupposes a certainly worldliness in the viewer, but for some reason it keeps treading into the unwelcome didacticism of a message movie. There’s a speech where Calpernia’s girlfriend Ginger matter-of-factly states, “Sexual orientation isn’t black and white,” and a similarly strained scene between two commanding officers where they debate the Army’s stance on homosexuals. The conflict between delivering an important message about tolerance to the uninformed and telling a story of the informed for the informed results in a muddle, but that confusion of intent dissipates enough so that the tragic climax can be gut wrenchingly powerful.


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Jeremy Heilman