June 21, 2023.
This review contains spoilers.
The plot of Unsound is that Finn, a deaf trans man, struggles to balance his professional life with his personal journey. He is fighting to save his nightclub, which caters specifically for deaf people, while also navigating the earliest stages of his female-to-male transition.
Finn is frustrated and upset when his father doesn't correct a woman who misgenders him.
Finn's transition is made all the more difficult due to audism. For example, when his father (Lewis) speaks aloud for him, he allows Finn to be misgendered, making Unsound a multi-layered story about personal agency. Lewis, who is fluent in sign language and knows Finn is asking to be referred to correctly, ignores his son's request.
The first time Noah meets Finn.
Noah, a cis male musician and gay man, moves back in with his mother, who lives in the same area as Finn’s nightclub. While wandering he happens upon the nightclub and meets Finn. Finn, who is dysphoric about his appearance and particularly about his long hair, is visibly worried about how Noah will perceive him. In a very sweet moment, Noah says it is “crystal clear” that Finn is a guy, setting the foundation for a lovely developing relationship in which Noah learns sign language to communicate with him, and actively becomes involved in Finn’s identity journey.
Finn talking to his dad.
The film explores Finn’s difficult relationship with Lewis, as well as with the memory of his deceased mother. He says how, every time he looks in the mirror, he sees her. This is a struggle I have heard real-life trans men discuss, so it was nice to see it explored in this fictional setting. Noah pushes Finn past his hesitation by simply walking up to him and handing him a pair of scissors, saying, “whatever you choose to do, I wanna be there with you”. He sits with Finn and helps him cut his hair.
Finn cutting his hair.
The haircutting scene exemplifies the shortcomings of Unsound. Finn is played by a self-described queer woman and actress named Yiana Pandelis. In interviews, she talks about wanting to avoid the clichés of trans representation... but, as someone who has watched a lot of FTM films and shows, I can confirm that a young trans man cutting his hair with kitchen scissors, in front of a mirror, is about as cliché as you get. And a trans man being played by a slender, light-skinned, androgynous actress (rather than a trans male) is mega cliché.
But, on the other hand, stereotypes do come from somewhere, so I’m willing to concede that Finn’s haircutting scene probably resonates with quite a few trans men. I know my first short haircut meant a great deal. That doesn’t change the fact that, when it comes to trans themes, all Unsound offers is stereotypes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the lack of violence and rape and hostile transphobia, but it does limit what Unsound is.
While the official Unsound website notes that multiple transgender consultants were involved with the film, that’s window dressing which doesn’t compensate for the fact that the filmmakers considered a deaf actor essential in a deaf role, but didn’t consider trans male authenticity to be equally crucial. I discuss the importance of trans actors in trans roles in my Dead of Summer review, but the TL;DR is that trans men should be portrayed by trans men for the following reasons:
To combat anti-FTM rhetoric that we are just deluded women.
To give FTM viewers a trans male actor to connect with.
To improve FTM storylines based on lived experience.
Finn lifting weights.
When FTM actors play FTM characters, the impact of their involvement goes beyond what they show onscreen, because they've undergone female-to-male transitions in their own lives and gained an intimate understanding of the things trans men go through. Further FTM involvement with Unsound may have, for instance, avoided a scene where Finn weightlifts while wearing a chest binder, which sets a dangerous example for viewers who may injure themselves by doing the same. Considering the fact that Unsound was released in 2020, when the majority of intracommunity discourse cautioned against exercising while binding, the filmmakers should've known better.
Finn arguing with a fellow deaf person about how to best protect the deaf club.
Despite its failings, this film does offer a trans man who has genuine interests and passions beyond being trans. Finn’s FTM identity is equally as important as his deaf identity, and you couldn’t accuse Unsound of reducing a character down to his gender identity alone, even if the movie can be justifiably criticised for other reasons. Finn shows real energy, emotion, and anger about being ignored and silenced as a deaf man, and he does feel like a whole person beyond his trans status.
Noah asking Finn out, after learning Auslan.
All in all, this is a decent film… up to a point. At some stage in the filmmaking process, the creative minds behind Unsound decided to jettison a compelling, sweet relationship for cheap romantic conflict. The supportive, calm, and reasonable Noah shows patience and understanding for Finn from their very first meeting, going beyond mere acceptance and choosing to involve himself in Finn’s life, language, and gender affirmation. Then, he abruptly changes his tune. While he doesn’t become unsupportive, and the conflict in Unsound is nothing more distressing than what you’d find in any stereotypical cishet romance flick, Noah's sudden need to flee their relationship doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, casting aside, the biggest issue with Unsound is Noah’s contradictory character development, and the focus on romantic conflict rather than something more compelling. It would've been fantastic, for example, to involve actual trans actors, and particularly disabled trans actors, so that Finn could bond with others about difficulty accessing trans spaces. That would've been a lovely way to draw attention to a persistent issue in gender-diverse communities, and would've given this movie an authenticity it currently lacks.
The ending isn’t sad, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it happy either. It’s bittersweet, courtesy of the needless romantic conflict.
Ultimately, I’m glad to have watched Unsound. As objective as I can be in my reviews now, as an adult man who has finished his transition, I know that in my youth I probably would've been hugely changed by this film! I wouldn't agree that "any representation is good representation", but Unsound isn't the worst thing trans men could be engaging with. Better this than Boys Don't Cry. We deserve trans men who are played by trans men, but Unsound is a step in the right direction.
Below are some scenes and small touches that I specifically liked.
Finn taking his packer out of its mailing bag.
Finn packing with FTM Downunder shorts, which I have also used.
Finn telling Noah that he has accidentally signed a rude word several times. This lighthearted side of learning to sign was really sweet, and genuinely funny.
Finn getting his first testosterone prescription.
Finn explaining his body dysphoria to Noah, after which Noah does something very sweet.
In terms of general warnings, Unsound isn't too bad, but there is the following to consider:
Deadnaming of Finn in the midst of an argument.
Plate-smashing and other aggressive actions during the same argument.
Audism and ableism.