It can be difficult to be objective with a film like The Most Dangerous Year -- honestly, regardless of what side of the political or social spectrum you're on. To the people making this film, it's about the fight to protect their beloved children. To the people who would benefit the most from watching but mostly would refuse to, it's about exposing their beloved children to sexual predators.
If you're on the right side of history, it's the former group that matters most, and the latter group that is ridiculous. If you're blind to facts and willfully ignorant of actual scientific data, then the reverse appears to be true. Even making that statement betrays a level of sanctimony on my own part -- a lack of objectivity -- that loses sight of the ways minds actually can be changed. Very few minds, but just a few more, over time, bit by bit.
The Most Dangerous Year is quite understandably a passion project by its writer and director, Vlada Knowlton, who, with her husband Chadd (who also serves as Supervising Sound Editor and Composer), has a young, transgender daughter named Annabelle. She took out her cameras to record their own progress, as well as that of several other families with trans children, fighting anti-trans bathroom bills moving through the Washington State legislature in 2016. Many similar measures were moving through other state legislatures in the country at the time, but Knowlton focuses locally, on her home state.
So how do you judge this then, not only on the importance of its message -- which is paramount and clear -- but as a film? This would be a relevant question for me, even if I didn't have a close friend who also has a trans child, who was heavily involved in this local fight, and even can be spotted a couple of times in the background of crowded scenes, like a movie extra. Hell, even if I weren't gay, and didn't have a long history of association with the queer community.
I'm fairly gender non-conforming myself; these preposterous questions of policing which bathrooms can be used by members of which gender are directly relevant to me as well. I have a long history of seeing double-takes when I walk into a men's room. Just last year at the airport a security agent actually said to me, "I'm sorry, I have to ask. Which button am I pushing? Pink or blue?" Why don't you push the purple one?
The experiences I've had of this nature are patently innocuous compared to those who have lived long lives, in different eras -- and, frankly, even in liberal areas at the current time -- as actual transgender individuals. The Most Dangerous Year, named after a study that declared that of the year 2016 for trans people, doesn't get into those specifics, but rather the passionate need and desire of parents to protect their trans children from senseless indignities.
Vlada Knowlton does an admirable job of demonstrating empathy for her opponents -- something particularly stressed by local trans activist Aidan Key, who hosts workshops and presentations on these issues, and has been an indispensable resource for many, including a good number of the parents and families featured in this film. She wisely makes it a point to give a good amount of air time to State Senator Joe Fain, who represents South King County as a Republican. He is one of few Republicans in the state legislature who opposed these so-called "bathroom bills" rather than supporting them, and he is seen facing his constituency, allowing them to voice their concerns and voice their frustrations, and then offers them both understanding and an insistence that civil rights are not to be put up for polling.
The Most Dangerous Year has many such moments, both striking and inspiring: open dialogue is the door to progress, rather than mutual hostility. Still, one wonders to what degree this film will simply preach to the choir. In a world increasingly characterized by insistence that facts don't matter, how much can doctors and experts featured here matter? Probably a lot, at least in educational and activist spheres. Other states going through similar battles could learn something from this film, as can other school districts around the country looking at updating their policies to include trans students -- another focus of this film.
That does, to a degree, make The Most Dangerous Year feel like far more of an educational tool than a film. Viewing it could easily feel to some like an obligation, more than elucidation through art. This is Knowlton's first feature length film, and a local production, both of which are easily evident onscreen. Judging it on the basis of its message (which is vital) versus on its merits as a film (which is decent) can be different things. Would I be insisting this should be seen if it were of the same quality but on a different subject? From my position, that's impossible to answer. But this is the subject at hand, and it does command attention.