Metro Weekly

Unraveling Michelle

Reel Affirmations 2009

Review by Will O’Bryan

Rating: starstarstarstar (4 out of 5)
Sunday, 10/18/2009, 1:00 PM
presentation, $10 at

AT LEAST WITH a John Waters movie, you’re braced for those thick Baltimore accents. With Unraveling Michelle, they just kind of hit you. There are other shades of Waters in this documentary, though it’s far from comedy.

If you’ve seen any of the movies Joe O’Ferrell’s worked on — Bigfoot at Holler Creek Canyon? Anyone? — you might have an idea of how odd Unraveling Michelle is going to be.

Take that low-Baltimore sensibility, add some heroin-addiction rehab for spice, hold on for Joe O’Farrell’s journey of discovery and blossoming as Michelle Ann Farrell, and you’ve got Unraveling Michelle.

Documentaries about gender transition are pretty solid staples of GLBT film festivals. But it’s unlikely that anyone’s ever tackled the subject in such a, well, shit-kicking sort of style. There will be blood. There will also be lots of cigarettes, profanity, aging porn legend Ron Jeremy, and fishnet stockings. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy gender transition.

”Everybody thinks I’m half-nuts,” O’Farrell shares. ”I don’t want that to change.”

Not to worry. Actually, you may even find yourself straining not keep away images of the gender-confused serial killer from Silence of the Lambs. Was that character somehow based on O’Farrell? Is it the voice? The Baltimore-glam aesthetic? It’s difficult to pinpoint.

While Unraveling Michelle, directed by Dan Shaffer alongside O’Farrell, looks like a journey into the bizarre on its surface, the film also manages to find the universal emotions of joy, fear, anxiety, doubt and hope in O’Farrell’s story. It’s not an easy job, as O’Farrell isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. She’s a bit abrasive, loud and boorish; that the filmmakers can present her genuinely enough for us care about her takes talent. And there definitely are those moments when Shaffer shines a light not on a crass, rock-n-roll bad girl, but on a woman who acknowledges the full meaning of her lot in life, a women genuinely grasping for her identity.

As for the rock-n-roll, the original tracks from guitarist/singer Lauren Young are stellar, giving Unraveling Michelle extra fuel to hum along.

Unraveling Michelle
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Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.