Praising Sophie Hyde’s debut feature, Sophie Mayer asserts you will never look at a Tuesday in quite the same way
“When the fuck [does it] change?” Anyone who has been a teenager will sympathise with Billie’s (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) heartfelt cry, which comes about 40 Tuesdays into the 52 Tuesdays of Sophie Hyde’s first feature film. Shot one day a week over a year to work around Hyde’s parenting, the film’s story also takes place weekly, on the day Billie spends time with her mother James (Del Herbert-Jane), who is taking a year out from full-time parenting as he transitions. Perhaps it’s because this is Hyde’s feature debut and her central performers are new to the screen that 52 Tuesdays utterly reinvents cinema. Forget Boyhood‘s conventional narrative told through time-lapse production, 52 Tuesdays is compressed by its tight schedule, like carbon into a diamond, and is nothing less than a revelation; in fact, it’s a series of revelations, as Billie and James unfold to each other – and the audience – as they fight and play and confess to each other each Tuesday.
Neither humpday Wednesday nor ready-for-the-weekend Friday, Tuesday is perfectly chosen: an indeterminate day of both potential and frustration, as well as emergence and delay, that perfectly parallels Billie’s and James’ experience. Billie reluctantly moves in with her father Tom (Beau Travis-Williams), a motorbike riding hipster chef who is more than a touch of a riff on Mark Ruffalo’s motorbike riding hipster chef in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright (2010). Making up the alternative family is James’ queer younger brother Harry (Mario Späte), himself a part-time parent to Lisa (Danica Moore). Speaking directly to camera, Billie notes that she was always cool with her mum as a lesbian, having been raised in a queer family, but she is struggling with the loss of a parent-daughter bond as she fears that James would rather never have been a biological mother.
Thrown a gauntlet by James’ dynamic change that he records – or really, creates – through videos posted on YouTube, Billie also takes up a digital camera and initiates her own sexual transition, one marked by socially constructed age rather than gender boundaries. Shy and apparently friendless, she falls in (love) with a cool older couple at her school, Jasmine (Imogen Archer) and Josh (Sam Althuizen), who she spies on making out in a store cupboard. Their names are reminiscent of Carson McCullers’ classic novel of awkward adolescence, The Member of the Wedding (McCullers’ protagonist Frankie, heralded by both Ali Smith and Jack Halberstam as genderqueer, feels like an “unjoined person” when her brother Jarvis brings home his bride Janice; she renames herself Jasmine to share their J-alliteration).
Billie doesn’t adopt a new name to match those of her new friends, but the camera allows her to generate a new persona of which she is in control. She asks Jasmine and Josh intimate questions about their relationship and eventually directs them to perform intimate acts. At home in the dark, she also makes a video diary, intercutting footage of global events with brief, angry, anguished attempts to describe her feelings about time, history and change. Hyde’s film is neither a scaremongering anti-tech diatribe like Beeban Kidron’s documentary InRealLife, nor an uncritical paean to the self-fashioning powers of the interwebz. When Billie’s film project comes to Jasmine’s mother’s attention, there’s a brilliantly-staged confrontation, with rich and criss-crossing undercurrents of emotion between the teenage friends on the outs and between teenagers and their parents, as Billie realises that James is still her elder, not her buddy. Balancing Sandy Stone’s cybertransfeminist ideas with concern about loss of privacy and identity, 52 Tuesdays might be the most complex cinematic exploration of our online world yet. It’s certainly one of the most tender; Hyde is full of unconditional love for characters who, like us, are making their way in brave new worlds.
It’s just as complex and tender when looking at relationships and worlds offline and off-camera. Billie’s uncle Harry is often at the centre of the mischief, a truth-teller and provocateur who encourages James and Billie to play with gender, in the form of glue-on facial hair or James’ packer and it is’ Harry who gives Billie the camera and keys to the abandoned bar where she, Jasmine and Josh play. But he has to grow up too, as does Tom; one of the film’s strokes of genius is to set Billie’s teenage kicks against the prolonged adolescence of her father and uncle, who have the privilege of not really giving a shit about anything except themselves. Similarly, Billie’s experiments with her sexual and gender identity form a context for James’ transition, so that neither story is pathologised or isolated.
The dislocated suburbia of Adelaide where Billie and James are changing is at once dreamy and dreary, a depopulated world of faded Polaroid sunsets and rusting chain-link fences so empty that it almost seems like science fiction. These soft no-places are set in sharp contrast to the immediately recognisable hills and bays of San Francisco, an epicentre of trans culture (and queer cinema), when James takes a trip there to a trans men’s conference. Billie might as well ask: “Where does it fucking change?” Do you have to live in a major metropolis to find, or be part of, a generative, queer and trans* culture? Is the hyperlinked online world the only alternative or can you make the world you want where you are, with the people around you?
Both/and, says the film, not least through its provocative my52tuesdays web project that invites people to contribute answers to intimate questions online, although Hyde had a refreshingly old-skool A4 poster with tear-off slips when she presented the film as the closing night gala of BFI Flare in 2014. But the film’s final Tuesday, heralded by a series of urgently ticking clocks and watches, also suggests that the endless digital world is not enough. What Billie and James learn through their painful, necessary 52 Tuesdays apart is how closely they are bound together, not just as parent and child, but – beautifully – by the inescapable force of time, as human and human. When does it change? Right now, with this film, Tuesdays are transformed forever.
52 Tuesdays by Sophie Hyde is released in the UK and Ireland on 7 August by Peccadillo Pictures.
All pictures by Bryan Mason, courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.
First picture is of two people seated at a table in what looks like a Japanese restaurant, with a cup full of chopsticks and gyoza on the table. A person on the left is male-presenting, with short blonde hair, wearing a dark jumper over a white shirt (it’s Del Herbert-Jane as James). The person on the left is a young woman with long black hair and fringe (it’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Bilie).
Second picture is a high shot of three young people lying on the grass at night. They are Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), Jasmine (Imogen Archer) and Josh (Sam Althuizen).
Third picture is of a middle-aged person with short cropped hair (Del Herbert-Jane as James), wearing a checked shirt, holding the head of a younger person in a bikini top (Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Bilie) and bringing their foreheads together, while holding sun glasses. The younger person is covering her eyes with her hands as they embrace at the sunset.
This article was amended on 4 August 2015 to correct the quote from the film. -AO