One thing that can be really off-putting about a drama featuring characters that are not “mainstream”—which in the context of filmmaking, typically means white and cisgender—are often played by actors that are not of the group or community they represent. It used to be just how things were done—the Luise Rainer won an Oscar for playing a Chinese woman in The Good Earth in 1937, and Lawrence Olivier’s blackface performance of Othello (1965) was once celebrated—but don’t think this type of casting only happened in the bad old days. A few more recent examples: Max Minghella playing Divya Narendra in The Social Network (2010) several actors playing yellowface roles in Cloud Atlas (2012), and of course the cisgender woman Felicity Huffman playing a trans woman in Transamerica (2005).
No such charges can be laid at the feet of Lyle Kash’s Death and Bowling: not only is the central character, a trans man, played by a trans actor, but most of the rest of the cast and crew are also trans. The casting choices work well, which should tell anyone who needs convincing that saying there just aren’t enough trans actors out there, or you can’t find the right trans actor for a role, that the problem probably lies with you and how you go about the casting process rather than there simply being no trans actors out there. And, for that matter, if you keep hiring the same cisgender white dudes to do the technical aspects of your film, it’s not because there aren’t other choices available.
Death and Bowling is a non-traditional film that uses a number of distancing effects to constantly remind you that you’re watching a created object, not peering in on someone’s real life. It mixes genres to good effect—an apparently naturalistic segment will be broken up with moments that seem to have wandered in from a horror movie, the lighting in an ordinary location will be more appropriate to that of a discotheque—and uses a variety of odd cuts, framings, and camera styles to ensure that you will never think you’re watching a Hollywood movie. There is a story in Death and Bowling, but the film is not primarily about the story—instead it’s about presentation and roles and how you see yourself and how others see you. It’s also about how outsiders form communities and reinvent rituals to serve their needs, and gets it all done in just 63 minutes.
X (Will Krisanda) is a struggling trans actor who has found a sense of community within a lesbian bowling team led by the tough and fiercely independent Susan (Faith Bryan). At Susan’s funeral, he meets Alex (Tracy Kowalski), who turns out to have an unexpected connection to Susan. The rest of the film, which is primarily concerned with X, Alex, and members of the bowling team processing their grief and working out who they were to Susan and who they are to each other. If the conclusion doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, I just don’t know what to say—it’s one of the sweetest, simplest, and most natural conclusions to a film I’ve seen in a long time. | Sarah Boslaugh
Death and Bowling is available for home viewing through NewFest 2021 until Oct. 26. Further information about NewFest tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.