Source: Altered Innocence

Review: 'The People's Joker' a Comic-Colored Thesis on the Trans Experience

Timothy Rawles READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Like a dissertation on the coming of age of a trans person made by Robot Chicken, "The People's Joker" is an eye-popping mixed media fever dream that educates as much as it provokes.

"The People's Joker" has an interesting life story. It was made in 2022 and narrowly screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Due to pushback from a "media conglomerate" regarding the film's use of DC comic book characters, the film only got one screening when it was supposed to have a few.

Director and trans woman Vera Drew has created a green screen fantasy, telling the story of one woman's transitional journey within the dystopian world of Gotham City. And yes, it's supposed to be that Gotham City. Drew headlines her movie with a statement that what she is about to present is within her legal rights. Thanks to fair-use laws, studio lawyers can only be annoyed at the appropriation.

In the film, a young person is having feelings of dysphoria and asks their mother if they were born in the wrong body. In a narcissistic panic attack, the mother sends the child to a Gotham mad doctor who administers shock treatment and prescribes something called Smilex, an inhalant that can mask the effects of dysphoria, giving the patient a fake smile. That's the status quo until the child (whose dead name is bleeped in the movie) becomes a young adult and decides to go to comedy school with a dream to be on the sketch comedy show United Clown Bureau (UCB) – an amalgamation of "Saturday Night Live" and the "Upright Citizens Brigade."

After failing at that, she falls in love with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a trans man who looks like Joaquin Phoenix's version of the Joker. He becomes progressively more abusive throughout their relationship. From there, she creates a persona named Joker the Harlequin and becomes a popular female anti-hero.

"The People's Joker" could be considered a pseudo-rock opera, it certainly looks like one, and Drew does belt out a few great numbers, reminiscent of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust." And, like most rock operas, this is also a hero's journey. Drew traverses through a ton of metaphoric pop culture references only to find out that one must accept oneself and buck the system a little to acquire self-confidence; it's true in the movie and in real life, as she discovered with the finger-waving studio execs.

"The People's Joker" reminds me a lot of the videos of Shaye St. John. Although more disturbing than Drew's opus, St. John had a knack for making social commentaries in unconventional ways. Her use of disfigured dolls, stop motion animation, and unsettling images were analogies of ailing mental health. While "The People's Joker" isn't that extreme it still gets its message across using some of the same materials, with over a hundred crowdsourced creatives providing animations for the 90-minute film.

That runtime time is mostly filled with Drew on camera. It is her film, her story, her words, and she is perfectly capable of chewing the scenery. Historically, mainstream films telling trans stories are played by cisgender actors. The argument against that practice is that a cis actor couldn't possibly understand a trans person's story, no matter how many years they studied method acting. That theory is evident here; all the hyperbolic set pieces, flashing colors, and breakneck animations don't distract from her journey, and therefore it feels less like acting and more like honesty.

The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) is also a standout. He gets the most laughs, and Lynn Downey, as the mother, invokes a little of the same clutch-the-pearls disposition as Mink Stole from "Serial Mom" whenever Kathleen Turner says "pussywillows!" It's easy to see where Joker the Harlequin gets her mommy issues.

Kane Distler is a bit rigid playing Joker the Harlequin's abusive boyfriend. To be fair, he has the most emotional role, and it's a lot for one actor to do given the pace of this film. He's like an anvil in a hurricane.

Overall, "The People's Joker" is a feature-length simile. The trans experience is like living in a world where the "villains" are actually good, and the good are actually bad, or at least one-note. Some might feel that's an unfair assessment, but again, this is a trans experience that not even I can understand – though, thanks to this movie, I can come close.

With its Bizzaro DC canon and vibrant comic book lighting, "The People's Joker" is a razzle-dazzle fireworks show about one person's journey to becoming their authentic self, and a bombastic coming-of-age tale about finding one's own Independence Day.

"The People's Joker" plays in theaters starting April 5.

by Timothy Rawles

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