In 10 Words or Less
The story of a not-so-average American family
Loves: Good documentaries, unique stories
Likes: Things that are stranger than fiction
Dislikes: Broken families
Hates: Selfish parents
Note: In March of 2014, seven years after this review was posted, commenter Lucas Servera noted that this is a "review that treats the subject of this documentary with undeserved disrespect and contempt." I re-read it, and there are definitely parts that come off as harsh, and which I would not write today, when the topics of sexuality and transgender identity have become more mainstream and better understood. I won't edit the review itself, as I don't want to try to change history, but I will definitely say that this is not a review I would be responsible for today. The first paragraph should have been worded in a way that says that this film is not your average story of a family, instead of labeling homosexuality and being transgender as anything similar to "unusual." The fourth paragraph is similarly problematic, in trying to approach the disconnect between Claire's voice and appearance, from a mainstream perspective. Again, re-reading these sections, it's hard to believe I once wrote them. I apologize to anyone who was affected by reading them, and I thank Lucas Servera for bringing them to my attention.
Everyone thinks their family is messed up, but one look at the Farleys tells you that you're probably doing just fine. Mark and Claire are twins, whose parents are divorced. That's normal enough. But they are also both gay. A bit more unusual, but still not that bizarre. Oh, and Claire used to be Alex. And their mom sleeps with a woman. And Dad's not exactly straight-laced either. It's certainly not "Leave it to Beaver" in this little corner of Montana. Yes, Montana.
The story of Mark and Claire has plenty of twists and turns, which are explored via their own comments, home-video footage and some observations of their current twentysomething lives. Interviewed separately and together, and documented together and apart, the concepts of the individuality of twins, the importance of gender identity and human sexuality all are up for discussion, and some very enlightening thoughts and opinions are shared, especially regarding what it is like to be a twin with a sibling who doesn't want to be a twin. Though the whole transgendered idea is obviously the focal point of the film, this exploration into what being a twin means is actually more interesting, mostly due to seeing how it affected Mark.
Mark and Claire's lives are two of the most disturbing I've ever heard of, as it's a non-stop barrage of pain and suffering, both at school and at home. And their parents, who are both winners, are too self-absorbed to even notice their problems. As anyone who's ever heard a stripper or porn star talk about their upbringing can guess, the path this puts them on is not a positive one. If the film has a villain, it's here in the Farley home.
Whenever you tell a story about the fringes of society, you run the risk of the physical oddness overpowering the tale you're attempting to tell. Fortunately for this film, you can't really tell that Claire wasn't born a woman, that is, until she opens her mouth, and then you're left with little doubt. Her "normal" appearance works for the film, in a way that humanizes the idea of being transgendered, instead of tying it into those who look like bad drag queens. The way the film utilizes old footage of the twins to bring the audience into the family home and make them familiar, is also a big plus for the movie.
Though the story of Mark and Claire is stylishly told and fascinating (as well as depressing,) it's mostly a story that's already unfolded, robbing the film of some of the immediacy that marks the best documentaries. Claire is still deciding whether to go all the way with her transformation, giving the film a bit of current conflict, along with its most striking visual: a close-up of a surgically created vagina, which belongs to an old classmate and new confidante. Outside of that, some minor personal conflicts exist for the family, but nothing as interesting as their shared past. The story remains interesting, but not in a "What happens next?" way, but a "How did we get here?" way.
A single-disc release, the DVD is packaged in a standard keepcase, and features a static full-frame main menu that has options to watch the film, select scenes or check out the bonus material. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
The letterboxed widescreen transfer is very nice, even though it's not anamorphic. The look is low-budget documentarian, but lives on the better side of that neighborhood, despite darker scenes exhibiting a great deal of video noise, and the very sharp video is marked by noticeable aliasing along hard edges. The scenes that are outdoors, or which look to be lit well, look great, with bright vivid color, while the in-the-moment footage can get a bit rough, along with some archival home-video scenes.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is crisp and clear, making sure the dialogue is solid and the music sounds right. The sound design of the documentary feels pretty simple, like most films from the genre, but even without any dynamic mixing, the film sounds good.
The bonus features start with some deleted scenes, six minutes in all, which follow Claire around in New York, watch Mark and her reminisce and show her hanging out with a friend, along with some home video footage of the boys. Without context, it's just more of the actual film. It's followed by a slideshow of Mark's art, which is really damn good, and a live performance art piece he does involving a jump rope. I guess you had to be there, because I didn't really get it, though the result wasn't bad.
Some interviews with the filmmakers, conducted by Mark and Claire, and an update with the twins, serve as something of a stand-in for a proper commentary, checking in at just over 22 minutes. It provides a nice bit of insight into the movie and the subjects, and allows them to straighten out a couple of confusing points.
The disc finishes up with some trailers and an internet link that's available when you put the DVD in your computer.
The Bottom Line
The antithesis of a "feel good movie," Red Without Blue is the kind of documentary that catches lightning in a bottle, as the concept likely is quite rare, especially considering the stunningly depressing history of the lead subjects. If someone wrote Mark and Claire as fictional characters, they would be probably be considered a hack, but here they are, real as anything. The story, told more in flashback than documented, is interesting, but lacking a sense of present conflict, outside of the relatively minor drama of Claire's surgery, which takes the film down a notch, making it into a high-end episode of MTV's "True Life." The DVD looks and sounds pretty good, and the extras are limited, though diverse. If you want to see what Jerry Springer's show would look like if they stayed away white trash and tried exploring something real, you'll want to check in with the Farleys.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.