Hot Docs Review: ‘Always Amber’

An uplifting, rebellious gender twist on identity and teenage friendship

3 mins read

Always Amber
(Sweden, 75 min.)
Dir. Hannah Reinikainen Bergeman & Lia Hietala
Program: The Changing Face of Europe

Enhanced Snapchat portraits, Instagram profiles and grainy selfie-videos of the titular protagonist Amber move at a steady pace across the screen. While the opening credits of Always Amber show joyful home videos of a happy child and loving parents, the family archive soon makes space for a new collection of self-made footage. Arranging audacious, flamboyant hairstyles in the bathroom mirror or putting on makeup in front of their smartphone, genderqueer teenager Amber lets Swedish filmmakers Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen in their intimate world of adolescent hardships and self-identity issues.

The duo’s first documentary feature is loosely divided in several chapters, each gravitating around Amber’s companions. Bestie Sebastian, first lover Charlie and new lover Olivera accompany them on their journey through young adulthood and on the home stretch of high school. The primary focus of the Swedish filmmakers is friendship. Amber’s struggles are mostly relational: dealing with betrayal, yearning for independence, finding love and support. On the surface, the documentary seems to depict the demons of any and all adolescents: first heartbreaks and feeling misunderstood. In Amber’s case, however, the genderqueer dimension adds intricacies to the already arduous exploration of one’s youthful identity.

“If I lived with my friends on a deserted island there wouldn’t be any norms […] But I don’t live on an island. So I have to adapt to the world around me.” Amber, who prefers the pronouns they and them, is clearheaded and determined during their gender reassessment interview. To approve a chest surgery, a psychiatrist has to diagnose them with gender body dysmorphia. But the trial and tribulations of Amber’s friendships have sown a seed of doubt: is a mastectomy what they really want? Later, taking a bath with Charlie, Amber reassesses choices and desires: “How much do I have to change because society doesn’t change fast enough?”

While slightly self-conscious in front of the filmmakers’ observational camera, Amber and their friends manifest much more confidence when they’re in control of the lens. The electric and vibrant personalities of the teenagers give the film an uplifting, rebellious beat. But the filmmaking choices of Hietala and Reinikainen also give agency: the protagonists take back their narrative. Doing so, they offer something the filmmakers alone wouldn’t likely have been able to do: provide unrestricted access and precious insight into the lives of young and happy non-binary people. The result of their combined effort is poignant and decidedly inspiriting.

Always Amber screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.


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