Lifetime’s “‘A Girl Like Me’ celebrates the life of a slain transgender teen
“A Girl Like Me” begins with a scene familiar to many families: A picnic with all the aunts and uncles and cousins assembled. Then, as a joke, a little boy emerges wearing a pink party dress. Some people smirk, some laugh, others continue eating.
But the boy’s mom, Sylvia (Mercedes Ruehl), grits her teeth. She snatches him and rushes him into the house. “You’re a boy, not a girl,” she reminds him.
But everyone seems to know intuitively what Sylvia doesn’t want to admit: Her son wants to be her daughter.
The “T’ in GLBT is perhaps the most misunderstood in queer culture: Male-to-female lesbians, female-to-male straight men, pre-op, post-op, cross-dressing only the permutations are seemingly endless. It’s no wonder Sylvia and the boy, Eddie, too are completely befuddled.
“He has male genitalia and a female brain. He was born in the wrong body,” a therapist tells Sylvia of Eddie, who is now going by the name Gwen (J.D. Pardo).
“A Girl Like Me” chronicles not merely the death of Gwen Araujo who was brutally murdered by men claiming “gay panic” but more importantly her life.
Director Agnieszka Holland and writer Shelley Evans weave together many threads of Gwen’s story in creating the complex tapestry of a life not just her relationship with her mother, but the reactions of her close-knit Latino family (who vary from “live-and-let-live” to biblical judgments), her sometimes supportive, sometimes vicious schoolmates, her romantic interlude with a straight Marine (Corey Stoll), who said he never discerned she was biologically male.
Bookending the film, with testimony scattered throughout, is the 2005 trial of Gwen’s killers. These scenes feel designed to spur our anger and disgust at the craven defense attorney, relentlessly emphasizing Gwen as a “freak” who may have brought the attack on herself simply by being herself.
Pardo makes for a pretty Gwen, but his voice remains oddly masculine throughout. Still, he captures the horror at being found out and the emotional ravages Gwen endured.
Reuhl has grown accustomed to TV movies where she plays tough-but-tender moms. Her Sylvia fits into that category, but she has the chops to make the more predictable scenes and some of Sylvia’s less sympathetic actions memorable.
Arnold Wayne Jones
June 19 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 16, 2006.