Normal

An average-joe factory worker (Tom Wilkinson) confronts his wife of 25 years (Jessica Lange) with the news that he’s a woman born in a man’s body and needs sex-reassignment surgery. She has the predictable reaction, then gradually grows to accept the situation and his new identity as “Ruth.” This is admittedly a sensitive and non-exploitative study of an unexplored subject — the impact of gender dysphoria on marriages — but it seems to have been made for absolute newcomers to the topic (or people whose only exposure to it has been the “She’s a He” crap on Jerry Springer). And writer-director Jane Anderson (adapting her play Looking for Normal) often gives her characters flatly unbelievable things to say and do, such as when Wilkinson slouches off to his blue-collar job wearing earrings. The real problem is that we get no sense of what’s being shattered in the marriage, and little sense of what he’s had to do to repress his feelings all those years; at times we seem to be watching a highlight reel of these people’s lives. What saves it from TV-movie banality are the performances; Wilkinson and especially Lange tear hungrily into the predicament, and there’s good supporting work by Clancy Brown (who only gets to play nice guys in HBO films — see The Laramie Project) as Wilkinson’s understanding boss and Hayden Panettiere, who steals many scenes as the couple’s hilariously forthright teenage daughter (“Are you going to shave your bikini line?”).

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