Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Made in India


Made in India

Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.

(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha

As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.

Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.

The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes,  Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.

Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.

She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.

However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.

As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.

Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.

The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.

To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.

Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).

There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?

There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.

Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.

This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.

REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.

REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter

Starting Out in the Evening


Starting Out in the Evening

Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella out for an evening stroll.

(Roadside Attractions) Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Karl Bury, Anitha Gandhi, Sean T. Krishnan, Jessica Hecht, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Andrew Wagner

All of us want to leave a legacy of one sort or another and nowhere is this desire keener than with writers. The older we get, the more urgent that need becomes.

Leonard Schiller (Langella) has had his share of artistic triumph. In his career he has written four books, all of which have received acclaim and notice, particularly the first two. However, as the 21st century begins all of his books are out of print and he has been relegated as something of a literary footnote. He has been working on his fifth novel for a decade now and has come to realize that it will be his last.

Into his New York milieu comes comely graduate student Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) who is eager to do her master’s thesis on the notoriously reclusive Schiller. That would mean giving the young woman access to his life in ways Schiller doesn’t feel comfortable with. While Heather promises that her thesis will re-ignite interest in Schiller’s books, Schiller himself is less concerned with interest in books he’s already written and more interested in getting his final work written and published, so he declines politely but firmly.

Browsing in a bookstore later with his daughter Ariel (Taylor), Schiller is bemused to see that Heather’s claims of being a published writer herself are correct and that her previous essay on another writer did in fact result in that writer’s works going back into print again. He also is disturbed to discover that there is little interest in the publishing world in putting the final work of an aging and more-or-less forgotten novelist whose best work was forty years behind him into print. Given all of this, Leonard changes his mind.

Ariel is also going through a difficult period in her life. She had dreamed of being a dancer but is reduced to teaching Pilates and yoga classes. As she is approaching forty, she very much wants to have a child, but seems to have the unerring ability to choose men who don’t. Her latest boyfriend, Victor (Cumpsty) is busy with his legal career. When Ariel stops using her birth control without telling him, the relationship comes to an end, much to Leonard’s disappointment. He’d liked the latest boyfriend, unlike his feelings for Casey (Lester), Ariel’s previous beau who had coincidentally just returned to New York. They had broken up because she wanted to have children and he didn’t, but nonetheless they get back together, falling into the same patterns, living the same lies.

As time goes on, Heather’s motivations for choosing Schiller become more obvious and the attention of a much younger, beautiful woman becomes flattering. What skeletons will emerge from Schiller’s closet and will he find the legacy he so painfully wants?

Based on a novel by Brian Norton, director Wagner (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a world in which authors are revered, good literature is worth saving and people still care about reading. That’s a world which is shrinking in a day and age where people are more willing to vote for the next American Idol than for the next American President. Wagner isn’t necessarily pointing the finger of condemnation at our shallow modern society, but he does so simply by displaying this one. There is depth and layers to each and every character in this film, even the minor ones.

Langella is a force onscreen. He has the gravitas of a Morgan Freeman and the gentility and intelligence of Laurence Olivier. His Leonard Schiller is a complex man, one whose life was altered forever when his wife died in a tragic car accident. From that point, everything about him changed – his art, his relationship with his daughter, his perception of the world. He is discovering that he no longer wants to live the solitary life of a literary icon and recluse, but needs human company, even human love.

Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire in “Six Feet Under,” has a very difficult role and she carries it off surprisingly well. Heather is driven, ambitious and charming on the surface, but below the surface she is conflicted and not nearly as self-confident. She has a tough veneer but she can be wounded and Leonard finds a way to do just that. There is some sexuality in her performance, but it isn’t just sex.

In some ways, we all hear the clock ticking. Perhaps it’s our biological clock, urging us to bear progeny. Perhaps it’s our life clock, counting down the end of our days. Perhaps it’s our career clock, compelling us to take advantage of opportunities while they still exist. Those opportunities, whether for children, success or creating a legacy exist within an all-too-brief period of time. Take the opportunity to see this movie as soon as you can.

WHY RENT THIS: Langella is becoming one of the most distinguished actors in America today, and he demonstrates his skills here. A very literate movie with some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat talky in places and a bit high-falutin’ in others.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief nude posterior in view as well as some sexuality and language concerns. Okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Brian Morton novel this is based on was a PenFaulkner Book Award nominee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 17 Again