Mothers, daughters, and sisters rule the network known as Lifetime, the cable empire built on tearjerker original movies about families in crisis. Aimed squarely at a female audience and telling its stories exclusively through the eyes of female characters, Lifetime is one of the most successful basic cable networks in history.
A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, which premiers on June 19 at 9 PM ET/PT, applies the tried and true Lifetime formula to the story of California transgender teen Gwen Araujo, who was brutally killed by a group of boys when they discovered she was biologically male. It was written by Shelley Evans and directed by Oscar-nominated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa).
The film focuses on Sylvia Guerrero (Oscar and Tony award winning actress Mercedes Ruehl), a single mother whose teenager (J.D. Pardo), born Eddie Araujo, gradually realizes he’s a girl. She grows her hair, wears makeup to school, starts wearing girl’s clothing, and takes the name of Gwen.
Guerrero and Gwen’s siblings don’t welcome Gwen’s realization nor the changes it brings to their lives, yet instinctively defend her when outsiders ridicule or reject her. Guerrero tells her traditional Latino family that accepting Gwen is non-negotiable, even while she herself is still struggling with negative feelings about Gwen’s identity, and begging her to be more discreet.
In a lovely scene at her sister’s wedding, Gwen meets an ex-Marine, Joey, and begins dating him. He stops seeing her when he discovers she is biologically male, but his former girlfriend, who he dumped for Gwen, takes revenge. She discovers Gwen has been sexually active with one or more boys she knows, and she suggests to them that Gwen is “really” male.
They lure her out by telling her Joey wants to see her, and in a harrowing scene, one of them drags Gwen into the bathroom and exposes her genitals. They then kill her. The real murder was particularly brutal, taking place over several hours, but much of what is shown onscreen is flashbacks of Gwen as a child intercut with very brief glimpses of the killing.
Gwen’s murder rocked the San Francisco Bay Area community where she lived, and made headlines across the nation. Gwen’s killers were tried, and after one mistrial, were found guilty of second degree murder. Her mother became an outspoken crusader for justice for Gwen and the rights of transgender people.
Ruehl portrays Guerrero’s combination of fear, love, rejection, and protectiveness brilliantly, neither coming too soon to acceptance to be believable, nor ever allowing her own conflicted feelings to overcome her desire for Gwen’s happiness. It’s a poignant mix.
The weakest link in A Girl Like Me is J.D. Pardo (American Dreams, Clubhouse), who plays Gwen. The 26-year-old actor holds absolutely nothing back in his portrayal, but is unfortunately so physically unsuited to the role that the net effect is jarring. It’s impossible to believe he is portraying a sixteen and seventeen year old girl. In addition to his obvious age, his hair and wardrobe are dowdy and wallflowerish, a world different from the real life Gwen Araujo, who looked like a club kid and had modeled herself on hip singer Gwen Stefani.