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‘Changing the Game’ doc explores the trans teen sports experience

June 1, 2021
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For many high schoolers, interscholastic athletics are a highlight of their young lives. The joy of competition intermingles with the many lessons that can be learned on the playing field – lessons of determination, of sportsmanship, of the value of hard work – and sports become an integral part of the overall school experience.

But those opportunities don’t always get extended equally.

“Changing the Game,” a documentary currently streaming on Hulu, takes a look at three individuals who are dealing with the struggles forced upon them due to their respective identities. These three young people are transgender, attempting to navigate high school sports in a landscape where different states have different rules and different attitudes about how (or even if) transgendered kids are allowed to compete.

The film, directed by Michael Barnett, follows these three athletes through their sporting journeys. Each of them is faced with prejudices regarding who they are and questions about the fairness of their presence, even as we see the support systems at work around them. It’s a thoughtful and well-executed piece, an at-times heartbreaking examination of the politicized chaos drummed up by fear and lack of understanding that also finds time to celebrate the victories of its subjects, both on and off the field.

Mack Beggs is a transgender boy in Texas. He’s a high school wrestler, but due to state laws, he is not allowed to compete against the boys. Instead, he is made to compete in the girls’ division – a division in which he proves utterly dominant. Said dominance makes him the target of anger and accusations – rage hurled at him by adults far more often than his peers, people who deem him a cheater due to the testosterone treatments he takes.

Sarah Rose Huckman is a transgender girl living in New Hampshire. She is a competitive skier who has struggled to deal with the state’s requirements that only those who have undergone gender transition surgery may compete against the peers with whom they identify. She’s also an avid YouTuber and something of an activist, pushing the New Hampshire legislature to enact anti-discrimination laws with regard to transgender individuals.

Andraya Yearwood is a transgender girl living in Connecticut. She has proven to be a real force on the track – so much so that she’s become something of a flashpoint for those both locally and farther afield who are angered at the perceived unfairness of her presence. Her success makes her a target for the fury of those who disagree with the state’s wide-ranging and accepting policy regarding transgender athletes.

Barnett follows these three as they forge paths through their respective seasons. Each of them faces down adversity and prejudices in their own way, with varying degrees of success. They are confronted time and again by people who view them both as less-than AND as unfairly advantaged. These are people in the community, yes, but also by many in the media, their right to compete turned into a hot-button issue by those driven by their own fears and prejudices.

But “Changing the Game” isn’t about those who rail against these kids. It’s about the level of support they receive from those closest to them. Every one of the three is lucky enough to have people who love them behind them.

Mack is being raised by his grandparents, an amiable pair who are unapologetically conservative in their political beliefs, yet wholeheartedly supportive of their grandson, even as they confess to some lack of understanding. Their necks might be a bit red, but their love for Mack is fierce and unwavering. Sarah’s parents, another self-described conservative pairing, also make clear their complete and utter support for their daughter, standing by her side as she strives to push forward anti-discrimination initiatives through the legislature. Andraya’s mom, an athlete in her own right, seeking out ways to connect with a daughter who is more of a girly-girl than she ever was, even as she wins medals on the track.

Coaches too, all devoted to the well-being of their student-athletes – ALL their student-athletes. Even those who confess to initial confusion regarding what being transgender even means are resolute in their support for the kids they’re coaching.

“Changing the Game” shows us the kids being impacted by anti-trans sentiment. They don’t exist solely in the abstract – they are real people, just like the rest of us. This film gives viewers a chance to get to know them, to see that they are regular kids. They’re teenagers doing teenager stuff – having crushes and doing homework and messing around with their friends. They care about the usual things and worry about the usual things, only with the added layer of pressure that comes with being transgender.

Make no mistake – this is undeniably an advocacy film, though Barnett does give some play to the voices raised in opposition. Both Mack and Andraya are on the receiving end of frustration and anger on the part of those who believe that they are unfairly advantaged due to their circumstances. And there’s no disputing that this is a complicated conversation in many ways. That said, “Changing the Game” handles it with as much decency and dignity as it can.

Will a film like “Changing the Game” change any minds? I honestly don’t know. It’s well-made and evocative, but with a subject on which people are so clearly hardline divided, it may not move the needle. One thing is for certain, though – once you meet these three remarkable young people and see how they move through the world, you will never forget them.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2021 06:12

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