I’ve seen x-number of TG-themed films and TV shows in my time. Usually, they are closer to “It’s a Boy-Girl Thing,” fun farcical takes on gender roles where people learn fairly obvious lessons about themselves while pursuing their objectives and dealing with the wrinkle of being trapped in another person’s body. Conventional, formulaic stories that please an audience.
And there’s nothing wrong with formula. Formulas are developed for a reason: they work for enough people to justify being made. I can write anything I want in a little e-book Novella that will be read by fewer than 100 people, but when you need thousands to buy tickets to the cinema, it’s best not to take chances.
Pulse is a rare film interested in the difficult emotions that can link to TG Fiction, and done so in a way that honors them, which is what makes it worthy of comment. If you are looking for the next “Switch,” this is not it. But it interested me because it is simpatico with a lot of ideas that I like to use in my writing, while also going places I wouldn’t as a writer.
The film concerns Olly, a disabled teen played by writer-star Daniel Monks. Olly has a chance to get a total body-transplant, relieving him from the burdens of his ailing body. He surprises everyone in his circle of friends by electing to have his new body be female, his secret reasoning being that while he seems to be openly gay, he is also secretly in love with his best male friend, who is straight and in a relationship.
After the transplant, Olivia (though still known as Olly to most), revels in her freedom. She’s pretty, she’s mobile, she’s desirable, things that Oliver either wasn’t, or didn’t think he was. She gorges herself with drinking and sex, heedless to any negative consequences, opinions of others, or the concerns of her mother, who seems to start the film at the end of her rope and only goes further as her child descends into bad behaviour.
It’s the kind of story I’d write, and probably have done a few times in some way or another: it reminded me most obviously of I Changed Sexes With My Wife, which used a similar body-transplant premise, but it goes in the opposite direction: in my story, the characters outgrew their old roles. In this one, Olly is imprisoned by his. Changing his outside hasn’t made his inside any more ready for attention, or even — if we’re being frank — deserving of it, on more than a surface level. Olly keeps screwing up and alienating the people around her, and all she can do is use her body for more attention, in the way that she was denied in her original form.
The truth about Olly is underlined by the movie’s key stylistic decision: for the most part, we are still looking at Monks (dressed in a ratty gray tee-shirt) rather than the person the world sees, played by Jaimee Peasley. Establishing shots and key actions are depicted with Peasley, but the scene will quickly snap back and remind us who Olly really is inside.
I said that this was the kind of story I would write, by which I mean the way it focusses on the dark side of getting what you hoped for and the emotional toll of sorting out your identity. These are things that fascinate me and will always get me thinking, even if they are not crowd-pleasers. Pulse uses a light touch with its emotions: it’s not about big revelatory speeches, more about sparse dialogue and the occasional frustrated outburst (this being an Australian film, salty language flows freely.) It’s a movie where a transformation happens, but only to signify bigger, deeper things than “Gosh, I have boobs now!” (although there is one amusing scene that is literally that.)
It also happens to be a story I would never write, at least not today: the idea of a gay person only feeling like they can find love by being biologically female is one that, to me, belongs more to an earlier generation, even with the wrinkle that Olly is specifically interested in one specific straight boy. The movie doesn’t suffer for this decision though: it’s not hard to see that being pretty and loved in the way that girls are (and boys usually aren’t) is appealing to Olly, and as a seventeen-year-old he’s prone to make rash decisions (and boy, does he.) The idea that he might be trans, as we understand it in 2023 (or even in 2017), is not seriously examined — his mum asks him if he is a “transvestite,” and Olly demurs, saying it just feels like a good idea to try being female. It’s really all about the guy.
That is all, ultimately, a function of the fact that it’s mainly about Olly’s complicated feelings about both his sexuality and his body, and he feels there is a way to correct both in one fell swoop. Olly is not a woman inside (based on the way he is depicted) but he wishes he could be because that would be easier than learning to be what he really is, both because of how the world sees him and because of how he feels about himself. I would imagine this is a very personal story to its disabled writer, who importantly put himself onscreen for most of the running time. Sure I wouldn’t have written it, but I’m glad he did.
If you’re looking for plot, this is not your girl: the movie’s soft focus means not everything is spelled out easily, reflecting the complexity it is meant to depict. This isn’t a mainstream film by any stretch of the imagination and it won’t be for everybody, even among those who are interested in themes of transformation and gender. It could have dug into its premise so much more, and I can’t even personally sign off 100% on the mostly-happy ending that sees Olly revert back to his original body — which what, were they keeping it in storage?. But as I said, it works hard to do justice to the potential of the ideas it entertains, which makes for a rewarding experience in a world where we’ll get four more Switches before we get another Pulse.