Transformer: Festival favourite doc about transgender weightlifter shows what toughness means

By Liam Lacey

Rating : B-plus

In the summer of 2015 - the same year that former decathlon Olympic champion Caitlyn Jenner came out as a transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair - a well-known 42-year-old powerlifter named Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was “outed” on a YouTube video. 

Another weight-lifter discovered Kroc’s second Instagram account under the name Janae Marie Kroc, the same person but wearing make-up, dressed in wigs and women’s clothes. A major sponsor, Muscletech, promptly dropped Kroczaleski, media began calling and she was compelled to tell her parents her lifelong secret. 

 Transformer: The loneliness of a trans weightlifter

Transformer: The loneliness of a trans weightlifter

Transformer has the kind of hook that practically invites an exploitative approach -- “Alpha-male, girly-girl” to quote Kroc’s original Instagram self-description. But Canadian director Michael Del Monte’s straightforward observational documentary takes its cue from Janae’s level-headed and honest approach to her experience. It follows the star around the gym and at home as she goes through the life-changing aftershock of her outing.

The topical issue of gender indeterminacy is examined, not through the lens of moralizing or academic theory, but from one person’s vulnerable experience. Archival material provides the background: Kroczaelski played high school football and took up weightlifting in the Marines (at one point, she was part of President Clinton’s security detail). But she is frank about the painful insecurity that lay behind the over-achieving, hyper-masculine image as she tried to “push down the feminine stuff,” and about the relief of having it end.

Some of that pain continues: It’s difficult watching Kroczaelski’s parents react negatively toward their child’s news. Her father, always seen with a beer in his hand, liked the strong-man son, but is all too ready to reject Janae as a freak  

But Kroczaelski, legendary for mental toughness as a powerlifter, is a resilient figure and a natural leader. It’s inspiring to see her gym buddies rally around her as her career collapses. 

Janae had already come out as transgender to her three sons a decade ago. The boys, now teen-agers, have a loving, supportive relationship with their dad. They lift weights together and play video games as they watch Janae put on make-up before going out at night. The warmth is infectious: The film won the audience awards both at the Austin Film Festival last year and the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto this past spring.

Near the end of the film, we see Janae consulting with a doctor and undergoing surgery to bring herself closer to her ideal, though the implication that the surgery represents the fulfillment of her goals feels somewhat reductive. As the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation points out in its tips for allies of transgender people, being transgender is not about the appearance or status of one’s genitals.

The most interesting takeaway from the film is Janae’s increasing acceptance that she’s destined to be unique, and like everyone, must live with some compromises. As she says in the film: "At this point I can cope with being a big muscular woman more than I can cope with being a small weak guy."

Transformer.Directed by Michael Del Monte. Starring: Janae Marie Kroczaelski. Transformer shows at the Imagine Carlton Cinema.