“It may seem bizarre, maybe even sensational,” says our narrator in “Soldier’s Girl.” Up front, she tells us her story is a tragedy. We know, then, that passion will be involved. For in real life — and this is based on a true story — it is passion, not calculation, that acts as chief motive for most people’s actions.
There is abundant passion in “Soldier’s Girl,” perceptively written by Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) and directed by TV-movie director Frank Pierson. Our narrator is Calpernia Addams (Lee Pace), a nightclub dancer born as a man but in the process of becoming a woman. At the point of the film, she is still male from the waist down. She is aware that such anatomical details make her unusual.
And so she is wary when a soldier from the local army base, the simple and sweet Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), takes an interest in her. Does he not know she’s really a he? Is it some kind of joke?
Let us talk about Barry Winchell. Thick and muscley, looking like a hairier version of Vin Diesel, Barry is new to the army and, though physically adept, he is ill-suited to the rigors of it. He butts heads immediately with Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy), his demanding, obsessive-compulsive roommate, whose own sexual issues are tantalizing left unresolved by the film. Barry is as straight as they come … but he is drawn to Calpernia, whom he and his buddies meet when they go to a gay bar for a lark. When you find love, as he does with Calpernia — and here is passion at work — you don’t ask questions. You go for it.
Barry and Calpernia’s relationship is explored with great sensuality and sensitivity, not by the other characters in the film, who find it loathsome, but by the filmmakers. Their first kiss is extraordinary, acted without a hint of self-consciousness by two heterosexual actors. (Pace is all-man in real life; Calpernia’s breasts are achieved through prosthetics.) Garity and Pace both elicit great sympathy, Garity for his stoicism and simplicity, Pace for the genuine emotion that seems to dance out of his eyes.
Hatosy, often a despicable presence in a film (you will recall hating him in last year’s “John Q”), is impressive here, giving depth to what could easily be a one-note character. I am also taken with the fiery performance by Phillip Eddolls as Calvin Glover, a hotheaded, eager-to-impress 17-year-old recruit.
Even if we don’t recall the headlines on which the film is based, we get an idea of what will occur early on, and yet the film still surprises us. It has the aura of real life about it, and a certain major event, the tragic one that made this a news item when it occurred in 1999, is caused not by the person we would expect if this were a fictional Hollywood story.
Passion rules the lives of all the major characters. This honest, compelling film avoids the prurient or sensational aspects of the situation and focuses on the people. This makes it, in many ways, a universal story. All of us can identify with someone in the film, whether we like it or not.
B+ (1 hr., 51 min.; )