Teenager Alex (Sebastian Emmerson) seeks refuge in an online game on his birthday when the bullying at the all-girls school he attends becomes too much. This short film was created by an entirely LGBTQ+ crew and features a transgender actor as the also transgender lead character Alex, making for an authentic tale about gender issues in a young person. Alex’s parents support his gender identity, allowing him to express himself at home; at school, however, the threat of his scholarship being taken away due to his gender looms over the household. His classmates and teachers, who he is not out to, still refer to him by the incorrect pronouns and name, and his general appearance of shorter hair and taped chest leads to bullying from his peers. Fantastic performances from all actors, especially lead Emmerson, enforces the immersive atmosphere of the film.
The escalated bullying from main mean girl Elle-Louise (Selma Alkaff) leads to physical violence, a snippet of which is used to open the film with. The hyperventilation and panic we feel from Alex sets the tone for the following 20 minutes; the darkness and oppressive atmosphere visually represents the claustrophobia Alex feels towards himself, being trapped in the girl’s uniform and by his dead name that his teachers and classmates use. Interestingly, this same dark closeness is used when Alex plays his online video game and interacts with an online friend. The close-up of his face as he types, lit only by the cold harsh computer screen, almost replicates that same feeling we’re thrown into from the beginning sequence of Alex panicking. The screen is covered in graphics representing the online game, showing the typed chat as they discuss the online birthday party Alex is having with his friend later on. Again, when Alex is practising deepening his voice in the mirror so he can pass as more ‘male’ sounding on the phone, the camera focuses on his mouth, proving his own confinement – the use of the pink tone could also be a representation of this.
The similarities between these two types of shots – the panicked claustrophobia of Alex being physically assaulted and the close-up of him talking to his online friend – seems strange, as Alex obviously finds happiness from this computer game, until the ending imparts a transformation from the oppressive darkness. His online friend is revealed to be a boy he talks to at school, the only one who talks to him in their joint-gender music class. When Alex feels even more defeated after his friend doesn’t show up to his online birthday party, surrounded by his parents in a hospital bed from the attack from Elle-Louise, Henry (Ted Reilly) appears with a cupcake to celebrate Alex’s birthday. Despite the online world being an escape for Alex, it was still not the reality he really needed; the new friendship in an open hospital room contrasts against the first shot of the film and the shots of Alex in his dark room, as both Henry and Alex are warmly lit by the candle in the cupcake, captured in a medium shot.
The camera itself is intimate in this regard, granting closeness between audience and character. The smoothness of the shots allows the story to flourish within; after the disjointed and jarring close-up of Alex’s future attack, an effortlessly sweeping camera introduces characters as they arrive at school, circling the mean girls as they tease Alex. This motion introduces us to the vastness of the narrative and all the little elements it delves into within such a short time-frame, acting as a strong foundation for the establishing components.
The many story threads of Birthday Boy, such as the quieter girl who steals Alex’s beloved sketchbook under orders from the mean girl, to Elle-Louise’s own carried weight of family stress, to the running joke of mum’s flan, all add to the authenticity of the short film. Things aren’t added in at random but are woven together to produce a reality that all can relate too, meaning Alex’s lonesome and painful gender struggle gains even more traction.
This film surprised me in its tenderness, a tenderness obviously derived from the LGBTQ+ crew and the transgender lead actor and their clear passion for this story. The loneliness that Alex feels as a young teenager, struggling with something none of his peers seem to also be going through, is palpable. That feeling is universal, as proof by all the characters in Birthday Boy, but Alex’s specific problem is an important one. It raises not just poignant but vital points about gender in schools, even making a firm comment on how harmful single-sex schools can be as they enforce specific gender roles onto their developing students. But, as the warm and hopeful ending to this film proves, there is always a brighter side to the darkness; it’s just a case of finding it.