BFI Flare 2022 Film Review – Dawn, Her Dad And The Tractor

A classic domestic drama foundation, the return of an estranged family member can come laden with all manner of narratives and themes – acceptance, home, compassion, forgiveness and more. When the person concerned is transgender, all those ideas can be heightened, so it’s not a subject that necessarily sits comfortably in what would be considered a family film. But that’s exactly what director/writer Shelley Thompson is aiming to do with Dawn, Her Dad And The Tractor.

Dawn (Maya V Henry) was Donald when she left the family farm five years ago. But the sudden death of her mother draws her back to Nova Scotia, to her father and sister and to rural life, with its clearly defined values and attitudes. She’s there for two reasons: to pay tribute to her mother, the only member of the family who knew about her transition and who supported her in becoming an independent trans woman, and to re-build her relationship with her father John Andrew (Rob Wells), a promise she made to herself.

There’s already a clear dividing line between Dawn and her sister Tammy (Amy Groening) before the two women even arrive on the farm. Dawn travels by coach, there’s nobody to meet her when she arrives in town, she’s the target of unwelcome attention from some local rednecks and her father can hardly bear to look at her when she appears on the doorstep. Tammy, on the other hand, is driven to the farm by her fiancé, the easy going Byron (Reid Price), they’re warmly welcomed by John Andrew and her childhood bedroom is decorated by numerous rosettes and trophies. And, while the tight-knit community are fulsome in their offerings of home cooking for the family while they prepare for the funeral, they’re less generous in their response to Dawn once they realise who she is. And, yes, of course, there’s a town bigot.

Don’t expect anything hard-hitting. You won’t get it, but that doesn’t mean that it completely avoids challenging your own personal attitudes. Putting the story in a family movie context is a bold move, but it comes with problems and the major one is its tendency to water down its inherent issues, so the characters feel overly-protected from what’s going on around them. From the way everybody talks about her, it sounds like the late mother was a candidate for sainthood, while a scaled down version of the one moment most associated with The Waltons, makes it all feel too comfortable and borderline cosy. On a more positive side, there’s a confident performance from Henry as Dawn, outwardly determined to the point of confrontational, but vulnerable inside and still working out who she is.

There’s a balancing act going on here. On the one hand, the issues and attitudes surrounding Dawn and her transition, on the other the family’s own story, but the film frequently see-saws in the direction of one or the other, be it some of the harsher aspects of being a trans woman or the more wholesome aspect of family togetherness. The two don’t always knit together as they should, but when they do there’s a glimpse of what the director is truly aiming for and perhaps what the film could have been. As it stands, it’s charming and warm hearted, but the kid gloves are never totally taken off.

★★★


Drama | Cert: tbc | BFI Flare on 26 March | Dir. Shelley Thompson | Maya V Henry, Robb Wells, Amy Groening, Reid Price.