Gender reveal parties have become increasingly popular with expecting parents. One of the funnier moments in “Man Made,” T. Cooper’s documentary about transgender men preparing for an Atlanta body-building competition, is the appropriation of festive balloons printed with the words “It’s a boy!” and other blue party supplies. Guests down bright blue cocktail shots from large syringelike injectors to celebrate the beginning of Kennie’s testosterone injections to to transform his body.
“Man Made” follows four competitors from across the country as they prepare for the 2016 competition. Mason has a lean, muscled physique and he competes in body building competitions regularly, though many do not allow transgender competitors. While body-building is a metaphor for the physical transformations all the participants have made, there’s all sorts of changes in their lives. Rese was kicked out of his home when his parents learned about his transformation. Kennie’s lesbian partner struggles with the feeling that she doesn’t want a boyfriend.
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Workouts with weights and throwing massive truck tires seem like the least of the sacrifices made by the men. They share experiences ranging from attempted suicide to homelessness to being physically harassed. Dominic is endlessly determined, and his upbeat, fearless attitude propels the film. He is adopted, and his attempt to connect with his birth mother is a unique journey. The film introduces more competitors as they all arrive in Atlanta for the competition.
Many of the competitors have scars from mastectomies, some of which frame bulging pectoral muscles. Mason talks about the diet regimen that he uses to stay in shape, but the film could use more information about the sport of bodybuilding and its rituals. Mason laughs about his preference to be alone when his body is spray tanned for competition. At the Atlanta event, there is a too brief gloss on the issue of wearing “packers” to project a bulge in the posing trunks competitors don for events. There’s enough emotional hardship on display from family rejection, self-doubt and the events of transformations, including surgery, testosterone treatments and other concerns, but the film needs to let its subjects speak more, as difficult as that often is. As physically imposing as several of the competitors’ bodies have become, their strength takes many shapes.