Film review: ‘Juliet’ exploring barriers faced by a trans girl

April 28, 2021

Serena and James (main characters) rehearse together before they audition. Image courtesy of Juliet.

Jamie Aldridge discusses LGBT people’s rights and talks to film director about their portrayal of the young trans protagonist

The UK has made significant progress in recent years to further equality for the LGBT community. From the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality 50 years ago to the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013, many people feel things are looking up for LGBT people, and that we’re being treated more fairly.

Having said that, it’s still not easy to be a trans person in the UK right now. Waiting lists at adult and youth Gender Identity Clinics are at an all-time high, with many people having to wait for up to three years just for a first appointment. Others are forced to resort to paying for costly private treatment.

Late last year, the Government announced they would not be making any major amendments to the Gender Recognition Act, seen as outdated by many trans people.

This is why it was such a breath of fresh air to me, to see a positive and uplifting portrayal of a trans person’s experiences in the short film Juliet. Its protagonist, Serena is a teenage trans girl who confronts prejudice and her own self-doubt to audition for the female lead in her school’s play (the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet).

The lighting and sound have been used to show Serena’s happiness when she’s alone, with natural light, diffused rainbows and wind chimes alluding to her lightness of being when she’s free to be herself.

Serena embodies the character of Juliet. Image courtesy of Juliet

This contrasts with darker, cooler tones, hunched posture and layered, baggy clothes worn when Serena is around others, illustrating her self-consciousness and reluctance to take up space as a trans person when surrounded by unsupportive peers.

There’s a scene reminiscent of the 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann, in which Romeo and Juliet’s eyes first meet from opposite sides of a tropical aquarium.

In Juliet, Serena and James (who has been cast as Romeo) recite lines together, each partially obscured from the other by fabric drapes being stored backstage.

The film’s director, Irina Storozhenko, told me, “it was important to make the scene feel emotional, innocent and accidental”, which she certainly achieved; the moment is both poignant and delicate, highlighting Serena’s own self-consciousness and vulnerability.

I spoke to Irina, to explore her motivation for creating such a powerful film.

Jamie Aldridge (JA): Juliet is a short film about a transgender teenage girl. Are any of the cast or crew trans or gender non-conforming?

Irina Storozhenko (IS): Our lead Reise Alexander (who plays Juliet) is a transgender girl who elevated the story to another level. Since Reise joined the team she embraced the story by adding her personal level of sensibility to it. We also had a diverse crew with gender non-conforming and transgender people on board.

JA: Did you work with trans people to ensure the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of a trans person’s experiences?

IS: During pre-production we visited schools in Los Angeles which allowed us to have this unique opportunity to talk to transgender youth, analysing their experience and implementing it into the story later on.

When Reise joined the project, she had such a unique approach to the story with a deep emotional understanding of the character. When we were filming, I remember experiencing such joy while standing in the video village and just following every move, and every nuance of Reise’s performance.

JA: Was Juliet produced during the Covid-19 pandemic? Did the pandemic and its restrictions make it more difficult to create the film?

IS: We were lucky to finish the shoot right before the pandemic hit. Beginning post-production in such uncertain times was certainly challenging. Fortunately, our amazing, strong female team responded fast and efficiently to the new circumstances with the highest level of professionalism.

Backstage, Serena prepares to audition for the role of Juliet. Image courtesy of Juliet

JA: How did you use composition, colour, lighting and sound to reflect Serena’s mood and experiences?

IS: The visual colour language was developed by Sarah Anne Pierpont, our Director of Photography. She came up with the concept of enlightening all the moments when Serena feels confident and in contrast, we were creating the cooler, colder darker atmosphere when Serena has to confront her peers. Her first steps on the stage when she decides to come out and say her lines are lit with colder tones compared to the finale when she is on the stage right before she is saying her lines, bathed in bright warm light.

JA: What do you think the film and TV industries should be doing to ensure that their casting decisions reflect the diverse backgrounds of the characters they’re creating?

IS: I believe that there should be no limitations for trans actors. They should have the same opportunities as cisgender actors to play any role they desire. A push towards more diverse casts would be a more inclusive, fairer way forward and is starting to develop.

JA: What advice or encouragement would you give to young trans people, who are living in a time when they are facing less and less recognition and support?

IS: Step by step, attitudes will change and there will be equality in the world. It won’t happen as fast as we all wish but hopefully, even less developed countries will gain a deeper tolerance of difference and diversity. I am staying very hopeful, and I believe that united we can make the world a better place. Never give up! Never lose hope and always believe in yourself!

Our thanks to Thrive LDN’s Right To Thrive grant scheme for making this project possible.