It’s telling that the most compelling footage in This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, which chronicles the transgender YouTube star’s rise to internet fame, are her own videos. Gigi (neé Gigi Lazzarato) offers makeup tutorials to her 2.4 million followers, and before she came out as trans, Gigi was a gay high school student in Canada who used the platform to offer hope other LGBT teens.
Her fans flock meet-and-greets with Gigi as a means of confession, tearfully explaining that her videos helped them get through the horror of adolescence. Some came out as trans because her example made that a possibility, while others chose not to end their lives.
It’s easy to see why Gigi has been so embraced by her audience. The 24-year-old has been posting videos to her account since she was 16. Although coming to terms with your identity can be difficult, Gigi comes off as fearless, completely unafraid to be herself. The trouble with This Is Everything, however, is that Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple struggles to translate the exuberance and confidence Gigi exudes to a full-length feature.
Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s a disappointing misfire.
There’s about 20 minutes of good footage in This Is Everything. There’s a very fine documentary short subject buried in the film about a young transgender woman coming out to her family. Gigi, who posted her first video to YouTube in 2008, wasn’t your typical teenager. After quitting the high school swim team, she devoted all of her time to perfecting her makeup skills and would practice running in heels on the treadmill. Gigi’s mother, who would pass away due to complications from a brain tumor, quickly accepted the hobby. Gigi told her family she is trans after her mother’s death, and her conservative father was slower to understand. As he explains, it’s not that he doesn’t love his daughter, but that until recently, transgender issues weren’t a part of his world.
This is the foundation for an intimate, piercing family drama, and This Is Everything features some stellar scenes of Gigi’s family coming together to support her. After she decides to have surgery to reshape her hairline, her father insists on coming along for the ride—over her objections. As his daughter lays in the hospital unable to move, her face covered in plaster, her father feeds her ginger ale.
Beautiful and quietly tender, it’s a fascinating contrast to a later scene where Gigi, having gone through her transition, makes her public debut at her father’s wedding. He decides to remarry after his wife’s death, and Gigi is one of the bridesmaids, luminous in a white gown. The scene is intended to be triumphant—Gigi finally being accepted by her family for her true self—but it’s undermined by the number of blurred faces in the wedding party. The other two bridesmaids clearly didn’t sign a release to appear in the film, and neither did many of the guests. Although the film puts on a happy face, those erasures speak to the struggles many trans people face with acceptance among their loved ones.
This Is Everything isn’t terribly interested, though, in exploring the undercurrents of tension in its own narrative. Instead the film pulls a Katie Couric. The daytime talk show host was lambasted in 2014 after asking Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox about her genitalia, a common mistake of reducing trans people to their bodies. The documentary falls into the same trap, spending far too much of its time on the minutiae of surgery.
Transgender activists watching the movie will likely be upset that the film reduces its subject to a played-out, insensitive archetype. This critic merely found the storyline boring. Aside from the fact that a beautiful woman is still beautiful after getting breast implants, what does the audience learn from these scenes? What does it say about Gigi that fans didn’t already know? Not much.
How much you’re willing to forgive the endless scenes of Gigi going to medical offices will depend on how much you like seeing the YouTuber attend red carpet premieres. The final third of the film is less a documentary than a pitch for her own Bravo show. The viewer follows Gigi as she meets with stylists and then backstage as the vlogger prepares to walk down a runway at New York Fashion Week. Gigi has a magnetic personality that makes these scenes more watchable than they should be, but it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s slightly less interesting than Keeping Up with the Kardashians. (Kylie Jenner even makes a brief appearance.)
It would be difficult to fault Gigi, who does exactly what is required of her, for the film’s shortcomings. My hunch is that Kopple, a normally gifted director, was merely out of her element. The 70-year-old is the woman behind Harlan County USA, one of cinema’s greatest nonfiction works. The documentary followed the residents of a mining town in Southeastern Kentucky during a years-long strike as they protested for fair labor conditions. Her subjects, who largely starved without a steady income, were shot at as they lobbied for basic dignity. As a social issue filmmaker, Kopple was likely interested in that aspect of Gigi’s story, but it rarely comes across. If the director was looking for meat, Kopple wound up with a Caesar salad.
What’s confusing is that the film doesn’t lack material to expand upon, and it would take a portal into Kopple’s brain to figure out why she didn’t dig further into those subjects. During the final minutes of This Is Everything, Gigi is detained in a Dubai airport, blocked by a policy barring transgender people from entering the Middle East nation. The moment is a sobering commentary on the fact that while society has made enormous progress in terms of trans acceptance, we still have a long way to go. It would have made for a great movie.
This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous is streaming on YouTube Red.