The Spool / Movies
Changing the Game Review: Transitioning to Fairer Play
Michael Barnett's doc is an inspiring, eye-opening look at the complicated, often painful world of transgender high school athletes.
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Michael Barnett’s doc is an inspiring, eye-opening look at the complicated, often painful world of transgender high school athletes.

As the public debate over the validity of transgender people (an issue that, it must be reiterated, shouldn’t be up for debate) rages on, one of the stickiest and most complicated arguments has centered around the role of trans people participating in athletics. If someone is assigned male at birth and transitions to become a woman (or vice versa), which league do they play in? Is it fair to the cisgender men and women who already participate in those leagues? These problems are compounded in high school athletics, which are already a hyper-competitive, cutthroat environment where students train day in and day out to earn athletic scholarships, every match carrying the potential to secure their future. The subjects of Michael Barnett‘s new documentary Changing the Game give us a much-needed window into this hectic, politically-charged environment: it’s a rough game that brings with it numerous struggles, but it’s a vital part of allowing these students to live their truth.

Barnett’s wandering, elliptical eye flits between the stories of three trans high school students weathering the various social and administrative hurdles of their respective sports. There’s wrestler Mack Beggs, a trans boy in Texas forced to wrestle in the women’s league despite identifying as a man; Sarah Rose Huckman, a trans woman skier who balances her athletic aspirations with a modest YouTube vlog and policymaking; and Andraya Yearwood, a transwoman in Connecticut (the most permissive of the states featured here) who runs in track & field.

Most intriguingly, the figures experiencing the biggest emotional journeys in Changing the Game aren’t the athletes themselves – they’re resilient, fully self-confident figures in their own right, inspiring in their dedication to athletic excellence regardless of their gender identity. It’s the parents, grandparents, and coaches around them who serve as a particularly interesting window into trans acceptance, as Barnett smartly focuses on their journeys to seeing their children as who they truly are.

The story of Mack’s family is especially gripping: he’s raised by his grandparents, older white Texans who fit the stereotypical image of who you’d imagine old-fashioned transphobes to look like. They’re older, conservative, Bible-focused; Mack’s grandpa weighs in on Mack’s identity in voiceover while we watch him fill a 100-ounce travel mug with Diet Coke. And yet Barnett paints their path to acceptance with a graceful brush, especially “Grandma Nancy” (as the film’s text labels her), a gun-toting, take-no-shits sheriff who took a long, hard road to see the real Mack. In fact, Nancy, with her generous gun collection and even more generous heart and soul, nearly steals the movie out from under these inspiring athletes. It’s absolutely heartwarming to see her elucidate so clearly her position on Mack’s identity: ” He was never a little girl. We made him a little girl.” In an age where trans acceptance falls largely along partisan lines — Democrat/Republican, young/old, urban/rural — Barnett takes care to show otherwise-conservative people who learned to love their trans family simply by being around them.

Of course, if everyone was as accepting as Grandma Nancy, Andraya’s mom/coach Ngozi (“If this helps them live their truth, how dare we take that away from them?”) and Sarah Rose’s parents, there wouldn’t be a documentary. Thankfully, though, Changing the Game doesn’t wallow in the transphobic misery piled on them day in and day out, choosing instead to emphasize the validation and affirmation they feel at getting to be themselves and do what they love. Barnett occasionally bombards us with voiceovers from concern-trolling boomers on Fox News and alt-right screeds from The Daily Wire, as well as the intermittent hysteria from an angry parent (one woman goes on about how Andraya shouldn’t be playing as a girl because she doesn’t experience the pain of running on your period?). Mack scrolls through reams of transphobic comments on FB stories about his story, and opens up about his own suicide attempts as a result of such hateful rhetoric. (As the film reminds us, nearly 40% of all transgender youth attempt or successfully commit suicide.)

What feels most human about Changing the Game is the recognition that these kids don’t want to be activists — they’re forced to by societal circumstance.

That being said, what feels most human about Changing the Game is the recognition that these kids don’t want to be activists — they’re forced to by societal circumstance. Both Mack and Andraya express dismay at all the attention paid to them. After all, they just want to compete as who they are. Sarah Rose, comparatively, dives more headfirst into her activism, drawing up legislation to allow trans athletes to compete based on their gender identity in her state of New Hampshire. In a just world, they wouldn’t have to suffer the limelight as much as they do. Alas, we’re just not there yet.

But what of the poor cis girls who have their titles and trophies stolen from them by trans athletes, you might ask? Well, the greatest rejoinder to that argument comes in the form of cisgender teen Chelsea, a tough high school wrestler for whom Mack’s domination of the division pusher her to train even harder to win. She doesn’t blame Mack for his predicament, nor does he think he’s transitioning to cheat: “Do you really honestly think someone would change their entire gender just so they could win state?” The answer to the “how do you compete against trans athletes?” question is simple: just rise to the challenge.

With Changing the Game, Barnett crafts an accessible, eye-opening portrait of transgender youth whose very existence is both a challenge and an inspiration to others — either to do better for themselves or reexamine their own biases. Whether they want to or not, Mack, Sarah Rose, and Andraya are icons and pioneers for generations of trans youth that will run, wrestle, and ski right alongside them. The rest of the world? Well, they’ll just have to work that much harder to catch up.

Changing the Game continues its run around the festival circuit with Austin’s All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival at the Alamo Drafthouse August 22-25.

Changing the Game Trailer: