Southern Comfort (documentary)

Robert Eads seems like a fairly ordinary man of the Deep South. He drives a big pickup truck, cooks “country bacon,” and smokes a lot. His friends, Cas and Max, seem the same as they gather at Robert’s rural trailer for an Easter cookout.

Then we notice things. Max’s voice seems unusually high. All three have soft eyes and strange-shaped hips. They are more affectionate toward each other than you’d expect. Slowly — the documentary’s best effort at dynamic storytelling — we learn that all three were born female and subsequently had sex-change operations to become men. They are transsexuals.

“Southern Comfort” is their story, but particularly the story of Robert, who, after becoming a man, developed ovarian cancer. (“The last part of me that’s female, and it’s killing me,” he says ruefully.) Worried about their reputations, two dozen doctors refused to treat him; now, it is certain he will die.

As if this weren’t unusual enough, Robert is also very much in love with Lola, a genetic man who is now about half-way on his journey to becoming a woman. Max is involved with a genetic man who is now completely a woman (a rather pretty one, too), and Cas is married to a regular ol’ woman.

Filmmaker Kate Davis follows Robert during what turns out to be his last year of life. His goal is to live long enough to attend the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta — “the cotillion of the trans community,” Robert says. His friends rally around him and provide support as his life slowly slips away.

It’s a compelling story, to be sure; most fiction could never come this close. Unfortunately, the people whose story it is don’t live up to it. Their situations are interesting, but the characters themselves are rather ordinary, even bland at times. This is probably a fault of the filmmaker more than anything — I wouldn’t presume to say these are just “boring people” — and indeed, it often seems that Davis is so fascinated by the uniqueness of the situation that she forgets to take a step back and see what would make the presentation of it more engaging.

That said, you have to admire a movie in which this line is spoken: “He was already living in the trailer park when I moved in.”

C+ (; PG-13, an outburst of profanity and some explicit sexual dialogue.)