Film Review: From This Day Forward

When the paterfamilias of a Midwestern family decides to becomes its materfamilias, things don’t so much explode here as gently coalesce, in Sharon Shattuck’s warm and winning doc about her people.
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Were one to see Trisha Shattuck on the street, you’d think she was a rather typical—if somewhat large and androgynous—Midwestern matron, going about her business. In truth, she was born a male, named Michael, and is the husband of a wife, Marcia, and father of two daughters, Sharon and Laura. While planning her own wedding, Sharon was haunted by her father’s statement to her when she was thirteen that he’d hoped she would let him wear a skirt while escorting her down the aisle. This was the impetus for her to make this loving but admirably clear-eyed family portrait.

Sharon had known about her father’s affinity for cross-dressing since she was eight, when she and Laura, then five, discovered a photo of him in drag and wondered, “Why is Daddy dressed like Grandma?” Trisha—then Michael—disappeared into another room and reappeared in feminine clothes. It was a process he had undergone earlier with Marcia, who, although a doctor, was virtually innocent of any such penchant on the planet, let alone that of her own husband, and amazingly decided to stick by her spouse, who from early childhood had desires to be a woman.

All, of course, was not easy for these parents, who at one point even brought up the subject of divorce to their kids. Deciding that, regardless, they could not live without each other, they dropped that subject and stayed together to become the very affectionate, in-synch and contented-seeming couple they are today. (And, for the more prurient among you, yes, they still have sex, a subject their director-daughter admirably manages not to shrink from.)

It was rough on their children, especially when they reached middle-school age, with Marcia the family breadwinner and Trisha a stay-at-home parent (and quite talented amateur painter), intent on fulfilling all highly visible duties as an active mother for a pair of mortified daughters, who just wished for invisibility. At this point, From This Day Forward really becomes interesting, with these tensions—as if adolescence and school weren’t tough enough—addressing the kind of selfishness which sometimes accompanies the decision to live one’s life freely.

As perceptively lensed here, the Shattucks are a deeply likeable family, almost like any other, with their shared moments of commingling and alienation, often marked with rueful humor. The kind of simple universality we witness—completely without melodramatic fanfare—is the strongest achievement of the film, presenting a kind of “new normal” even with such an improbably garbed elephant in the room. The external price this family has to pay, living in a small Michigan town with prejudice and fallen friendships, is strongly addressed as well.

It’s interesting to note that in most films broaching this topic, it’s the wife, not the cage-rattling former “husband,” who emerges as the truly fascinating character. You always wonder what makes these by now probably un-shockable women tick, endure and make a glass-half-full kind of situation bearable, not to say happy. Shattuck’s graceful movie answers those questions better than any this critic has seen to date.

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