Published Oct 19, 2018From its opening shot, Transformer says it's a documentary about transitioning. Janae Marie Kroczaleski is undressing, getting ready for surgery, while in voiceover, she muses, "How am I ever going to find peace, being comfortable in my own skin?" Immediately, she cuts quite the figure, later saying she's 250 pounds of muscle, the kind of body that comes only through hours of work and refinement.
Stories of transitioning take up a lot of the conversation around trans people — enough that there's now a marked need for stories about living post-transition. Finding a story of this period in someone's life that needs to be told in a doc really requires access to and active permission from the subject, as well as a rich environment to compellingly explore these ideas. In Janae — and the body-obsessed world of powerlifting — this film has found its elements.
In a little more than ten minutes, director Michael Del Monte's film establishes the beats of Janae's early life. As a child, and before coming out, she lives with her family in a trailer in Michigan where she's bullied at school. The solution comes in physical and athletic pursuits, scored by bursts of jazzy drumming. She joins high school football and eventually the Marines, and when she returns home, she takes up powerlifting, at one point reigning as the strongest person in the world in her weight class. Janae's a star in a weightlifting and bodybuilding community that knows her as Matt. And then, in 2015, a YouTuber outs her.
This is where Transformer comes in, following Janae at a vulnerable and raw time in her life. She's no longer competing and is dealing with, as she puts it, "the two gender thing." "I'm uncomfortable as an extremely muscular woman," she says, "but, as a guy, that's the only way I'm comfortable." Over the course of the film, Janae's probes her relationships for their thoughts and feelings on coming out, while she herself actively considers what kind of woman she wants to be.
Throughout this process, we see Janae "convert back to Matt," in her words, for any number of reasons. One seems to be the connection to powerlifting, an aggro-masculine environment she's figuring out how to interact with as a woman. She works out with friends, talking about a "fucking pussy weight," saying "Let's go, bitch" before doing a lift. That sits alongside moments like her putting on her makeup before a night out, while her three sons play Mortal Kombat in the background.
It's key to mention that this appears to be a movie made with Janae and not just about her. She's given a prominent executive producer credit and, as much as there is any voiceover, it's hers. She's granted the filmmakers tremendous access, including to difficult conversations with family and to many vulnerable moments. At one point, the film follows her to a meeting with her father, who says that he wouldn't be able to handle it if Janae were to fully transition. Only a firm trust in the filmmakers could inspire Janae to invite them along on this journey.
That trust pays off in a thoughtful portrait of a woman affirming her identity. Transformer shows Janae in a potentially fraught period, working through how those around her once saw her and how that changes.