Changing the Game – SQIFF 2021 Review

by Hamish Calvert

Mack, Andraya and Sarah are three teenage high school students competing in sports at the top of their respective fields. They have many things in common including their drive for success as well as the fact that they happen to be transgender. However due to the transphobic attitudes and policies in place across the US each of them face opposition far greater than their sporting competitors. Director Michael Barnett’s Hulu documentary Changing the Game follows these three athletes as they attempt to navigate their way through the discrimination and constant debate that they are subjected to whilst participating in their chosen sports.

The film opens how any good sports documentary should – with a training montage. It’s wrestler Mack Beggs we see first, a state champion who because of Texas state law is only allowed to compete against women, despite being a man. The film then moves to New Hampshire where we meet skier and trans-activist Sarah Rose Huckman who is attempting to pass a new bill to protect transgender citizens from discrimination. Finally the film visits Connecticut and audiences are introduced to track star Andraya Yearwood who is able to compete on the women’s team thanks to her school’s progressive policies, although she still faces transphobic protests from the parents of some students.

So with each of the main subjects and their respective stories quickly established Changing the Game proceeds in sharing its focus between each of them throughout its runtime, highlighting their experiences as transgender teenage athletes. This is achieved with ease thanks to a smart edit that binds together footage of them competing in their sports, interview moments and more fly-on-the-wall style documentary filmmaking. 

Using testimony from parents of other cisgender competitors, footage of television interviews or news reports and comments from spectators Barnett’s documentary showcases the collection of arguments that those opposed to transgender athletes taking part in sport often quote. However, whilst it’s important to acknowledge these for the sake of context the documentary rightfully choses to shine its spotlight firmly on the three athletes that are the subject of the film. In a society that has an unhealthy obsession with debating trans issues without actually consulting or including trans people this is a positive, albeit obvious to most, decision and allows for a refreshing change of pace concerning the conversation. Allowing its subjects the chance to really explain their experiences ensures that the documentary creates a rich and compelling portrait of transgender teens in sport, supplied by those who actually know what it’s like. 

Changing the Game | 2019 Tribeca Festival | Tribeca

As you would expect Changing the Game is at times a deeply emotional film. The athletes and their parents share such honest and moving testimony that will prove incredibly affecting for audiences. The overwhelming sense that viewers will get from the three athletes is their desire to simply be accepted and to enjoy the same freedoms that cisgender people have always done. This is conveyed excellently through the interview segments where the teens have the opportunity to analyse the issue at large whilst also discussing the specific struggles that are relevant to their own situations. 

Sport certainly isn’t the only topic covered in the film though as the teens also comment on the shocking suicide statistics associated with trans teenagers, dating and relationships as well as their long term sporting goals and careers aspirations. This is a further reminder that trans people exist far beyond the limited issues that the media choose to fixate on. Ultimately as well as serving as a conclusive argument for why there’s no problem with trans teenagers competing in sports the film is also a celebration of trans people succeeding in sports, as well as in politics and life in general – and it’s truly a joy to witness.

Changing the Game is an enlightening watch that many should benefit from seeing. It gives trans teenagers the platform to share their experiences free from uninformed interruptions of those who only intend to exclude and discriminate. Furthermore, it really gets to the crux of why trans inclusion in sport is so crucial and encouragingly highlights those schools, coaches and families who support their transgender teenagers, subsequently giving hope to all those who live in fear. This film is a tribute to them and the sporting transgender trailblazers who really are changing the game, for the better. 

Changing the Game is screening as the closing film of SQIFF 2021 on Sunday 10th October but will also be available to rent online for the duration of the festival.
You can buy tickets on a pay what you can sliding scale here

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