'The Pearl' & 'Supergirl' Are Hidden Gems Worth Discovering [DOC NYC Review]

DOC NYC winds down today, but there are always plenty of films to mark down and keep on your radar for when they screen near you. Spanning across three venues including the IFC Center, the SVA Theatre and the Cinépolis Chelsea, and featuring over 250 films, the festival has a number of smaller hidden gems worth uncovering, and these are just a couple.

The Pearl
There are certain definitive moments in life that alter how art is viewed. It is impossible to watch “The Pearl,” a film by Jessica Dimmock, and Christopher LaMarca, without imagining a potential wave of terror that must be running through the transgender community in America at the moment. Set in a small logging town in the Northwest, “The Pearl” is an intimate portrait of four transgender women’s transition and struggle with identity. The film begins at the Esprit Conference, a convention for middle age or senior transgender women living both in and out of the closet. In this safe space, they practice the walk and talk of the feminine. They each delight in the oasis of living their truth 24 hours a day without having to hide, and the act of getting dressed for the graduation party is pure, unfiltered joy. The close-up footage focuses on the details of each woman’s life, forming a tesseract of multilayers that connects via the years they’ve each had to hide. We first meet Nina, a gentle soul quietly and silently transitioning without publicly announcing it to her family. When not able to be herself, Nina spends what feels like hours poring over photos of her transition.

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We are then introduced to two biologically born brothers, Jodie and Krystal, who’ve recently come out to each other. After visiting Esprit, Krystal decides to live transgender full-time, and with her newfound freedom she is lighter and happier. Jodie, unable to fully embrace who she is, still reverts back to her male self for life on the road in order to get by.

Amy, a senior who only after her wife’s passing was able to fully come out, runs a sort of halfway house for others to transition. We follow Amy as she undergoes gender-reassignment surgery in Bangkok. When she returns to a house in shambles, she delivers one of the most poignant speeches of the film, imploring her housemates to smash what remains of their masculinity and with it their ego. The question on how to truly do this lingers in the scenes that follow, almost drowning the viewer in the search for an answer. A downbeat but sincere work clocking in at a long 94 minutes, “The Pearl” succeeds in delivering one clear message: All any of these women want is to be viewed as human beings, and this up-close and personal film lets you do just that. [A-]

Directed by Jessie Auritt, “Supergirl tells the story of Naomi Kutin, an Orthodox Jewish girl from Paramus, New Jersey, who also happens to have broken the powerlifting world record for her weight class when she was just 10 years old. The Kutin family prays three times a day, remains kosher and observes the Sabbath, and “Supergirl” takes us inside their household where love and powerlifting are served in heaping spoonfuls for every meal.

Showing an impressive aptitude and strength in karate at an early age, Naomi was introduced to powerlifting by her father, Ed, a longtime fan and enthusiast of the sport. Breaking with the typical orthodox constraints of what girls should participate in, Naomi’s remarkable progress in the sport leads her to make record-breaking appearances at various competitions. Through Auritt’s lens, we get to know each member of Naomi’s family and support system. With a deep love and concern for her children, we meet Naomi’s mother, Neshama, and learn of her indirect and painful path to Orthodox Judaism. We get the gift of Ari, Naomi’s younger brother, whose pride for his sister’s achievements is so abundant it almost bounces off the screen. The bond between the siblings is captured at that special time before the teenage years and the distractions that come with it inevitably change the dynamic. The film spans the pivotal preteen years in Naomi’s life where she is faced with weight challenges in the hopes to remain competitive, social-media trolls who think she is merely living out her father’s dreams, and the pressures of pleasing those she loves, all while growing into a young woman.

When a health scare threatens to end her powerlifting career and take her super alter ego with it, the viewer struggles with whether this pastime is really in Naomi’s best interest. The conflict of whether her parents should take her out of the sport entirely versus fulfilling her own raw determination becomes heightened, but their love for each other never wavers. Whatever obstacle gets thrown her way, Naomi leans on her sense of self, her religion, and her family, and she remains empowered throughout. Showcasing a normal girl doing extraordinary things, “Supergirl” is a health tonic for this cramping climate of resurgent sexism underway where girls everywhere are struggling to understand their worth. [A]