A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story

 
 

That in and of itself wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the plot weren't predicated on Gwen's youthful appeal and sexiness. The boys and men shown being interested in her wouldn't have looked twice at the tall, gawky, broad-shouldered, badly-dressed, badly-coiffed Pardo. His acting is passionate and accomplished, and he was deeply committed to doing justice to the role, but no amount of acting chops or passion can overcome his physical unsuitability for the part.

Although executive-produced by attorney Gloria Allred, who represented the family and authored a book on the trial of Gwen's killers, A Girl Like Me lets drama trump reality whenever the two conflict.

In real life, Gwen's struggle for self-acceptance was apparently much rockier than is depicted in the film, and her death more brutal than the cinematic version. But even judging it simply as a film and not an account of reality, A Girl Like Me can better be described as well-intentioned than powerful.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have its powerful moments. While like all such films it's full of stock characters, from the struggling mother to the supportive grandfather to the gang-girl sister, sometimes this works very much to its advantage. The aggressive defense attorney is a cliché straight out of central casting, but his sneering cross-examinations of Gwen's therapist and best friend actually lead to two of the film's most powerful moments.

Gwen's best friend takes the stand in the handkerchief-twisting, trembling-voiced tradition of courtroom dramas everywhere. The defense attorney questions her about her grades and involvement in student government, and then asks her if she knew Eddie Araujo. Which is the moment the transformation occurs.

“No,” she says, lifting her chin. Her answer takes him by surprise. “No?” “I knew Gwen.”

Gwen's therapist is brought in for cross-examination as well, although the legal purpose of this testimony is not entirely clear. But it does lend itself to a blockbuster of a scene, when the defense attorney again tries to suggest that Gwen (or Eddie, as he persists in calling her) brought about her own murder by letting the boys who killed her believe she was biologically female before engaging in sexual activity with them. Didn't Eddie, he asks, have an obligation to tell them?

The therapist spars with him for a while, and then finally says, “I was born a biological male. Should I have told you that before beginning this cross-examination?” “But we're not in an intimate relationship,” he replies. “If we were, would you kill me?”

Such powerhouse moments aside, this is no Boys Don't Cry. There is a formula for made-for-TV message movies, and A Girl Like Me fits into it seamlessly. This is paradoxically its greatest strength, not so much as drama but as social commentary. In the canon of Lifetime movies, where mothers stand strong beside their children and families love each other no matter what, A Girl Like Me raises no doubts about the place of a transgender daughter in her mother's heart and home.

When asked by The Advocate for her thoughts on the impact of Lifetime's enormous audience seeing the film, Ruehel said she thought it was a great opportunity for spreading a message to middle America that “there is a complex condition called transgender–something you're born with.”

"This is a poignant story about a mother who loved her child unconditionally, but ultimately lost her daughter due to the ignorance and fear of four young men," said Ruehl in a Lifetime interview. "Everyday, Sylvia and her family continue to endure the pain of Gwen's death, but what we can all learn from the tragedy is tolerance for all people, regardless of sexual gender or identity."

A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story premieres
June 19 at 9 PM ET/PT on Lifetime.

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