Add Transgender Film ‘Lady Valor’ to Your Summer Movie Radar

By  · Published on May 29th, 2014

CNN Films

Kristin Beck, the first woman Navy SEAL, is the greatest action hero you’ll see at the movies this summer. That is if you’re able to get to one of the screenings of Lady Valor. At the moment, I count two showings of the film in New York City next month (June 14th and 16th) as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and then at least one showing in San Francisco on June 27th as part of the Frameline Film Festival. Technically it’ll still be summer when it premieres on CNN on September 4th, but that’s just shy of the season, movie-wise.

I am still hoping that CNN Films gives the documentary a proper theatrical release before its cable debut, but I also got the idea today that the news network should bump up its airing to catch the wave of positive attention to the transgender community after today’s reveal of the new Time magazine cover featuring Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox. That would be stupid, though, because there’s no reason that this should only be a wave. Lady Valor needs to arrive when it arrives as normal in order to continue the whole current.

We’ve seen films about transgender characters, both real and fictional, for decades, and while Time calls now a tipping point for the transgender movement, the main reason why they’re focusing on it at this moment seems both to do with the upcoming release of the second season of Orange is the New Black and to finally make up for excluding Cox on their list of the 100 most influential people last month despite a reader poll that placed her in the top five, clearly making her deserving of recognition.

Still, it’s great to see the actress/activist on the cover, apparently the first trans person ever to have the distinction. And Time is right to state that the transgender movement is “America’s next civil rights frontier,” just as Vice President Joe Biden made the claim a year and a half ago that transgender discrimination is “the civil rights issue of our time.” We need all of these sorts of big steps forward, especially when many of my fellow writers continue to get pronouns and terminology wrong in reviews of recent films like My Prairie Home and Something Must Break and when actors playing transgender parts in movies like Dallas Buyers Club aren’t doing enough to address the trans community and movement.

I find it a bit strange that Beck is not featured in either of the magazine’s galleries of famous transgender people (among them movie relevant names like Lana Wachowski and Brandon Teena) or mentioned in the cover story – as far as I can tell, because I don’t have a subscription allowing me to read the whole thing. There’s room for some great synergy here within the Time Warner umbrella, as both Time and CNN are part of that family. But her exclusion is all the more reason for me to put the spotlight her and the film (titled fully Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story).

Two months ago, I included the doc in my list of the best nonfiction films of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, calling it “the best depiction of transgender yet, or at least the most accessible and comprehensible look at a transgender person.” I believed that through its airing on CNN that it would be something of a tipping point itself for the movement. Time has beaten Lady Valor to the punch in that regard, and the interview with Cox and the short doc on about transgender homecoming queen Cassidy Campbell are both quite accessible.

But I think Beck’s doc, which is directed by Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona, gives viewers a fuller and maybe even stronger introduction to and experience of at least one woman’s story and the issues she’s going through as a decorated veteran (even if she wasn’t retired, the U.S. military bans trans persons) and as someone in the early stages both of being out and of transitioning. Plus the PTSD and physical injury from time served.

The transitioning element is not necessarily just about her having a “sex change,” if that’s even a part of it. As one awful critic addressed in a very disrespectful question post-screening at SXSW, Lady Valor is not a film serving the (ignorant) audience with an education on genitalia. This is a character study that instead hopefully encourages general tolerance of human beings, as that’s primarily what Beck wants to be known as. Of course, she sees it as her duty to also be an activist for the trans community, and an inspiring one at that, so her wish doesn’t exactly mean anonymity.

It’s a fairly conventional sort of documentary, but almost halfway into the year I think this is one of the best character-driven films of 2014. Beck is smart, strong-willed, funny, empowering and maybe just a little intimidating with her muscular physique and enjoyment in shooting guns. As she proves with a few moments on screen, wherever she goes, whether it’s a meeting of other trans folk or a veteran’s bar filled with old timers who wouldn’t seem to be so understanding, she tends to quickly assimilate if not become the life of the party because she’s so darn likable.

That appeal definitely comes through the lens, too. Anyone who doesn’t get caught up in her charm watching Lady Valor is crazy or heartless, or both. So see it when you can, either in the coming weeks if you’re able or at least on TV in a few months. For now, watch the trailer on the doc’s website, where you’ll also find info on other upcoming screenings and release dates if any are added.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.