TV talent shows have provided a springboard to stardom for many of today’s most famous acts; Harry Styles, Little Mix and Jennifer Hudson, among many others all found fame on TV talent competitions. However, whilst shows like these often discover new talents, they also offer stars of the past a chance to step back into the spotlight and make a comeback. This was the case for transgender comedian Julia Scotti who, in 2016 appeared on Season 11 of America’s Got Talent, going on to become a quarter-finalist. Off the back of her success on the show Susan Sandler’s new documentary, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way showcases this comeback but primarily focuses on Julia’s journey of transition.
So whilst most viewers will probably know of Julia solely from her time on America’s Got Talent – and it is this part of her career that the film’s trailer opens with – it really only takes up quite a small amount of time in the overall documentary. Instead the film more deeply explores Julia’s early career, her coming out and how her transness affected her relationships, especially with her children.
The documentary utlises all of the usual techniques that are often seen with this style of filmmaking; archival footage, animation and interviews with the subject of the documentary, as well as with any relevant family, alongside comments from co-workers. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the filmmaking here and with the documentary only having a runtime of 73 minutes, at times it feels a little scattered and comes across as being unsure of how to tell Julia’s story. As a result, the amalgamation of techniques used feels like an attempt to be all things, but ultimately leaves the documentary lacking in focus. This is maybe most noticeable in the film’s final minutes which lead upto one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. However, despite the lack of cohesive filmmaking, thankfully Julia herself is a star and her natural charisma, comedic timing and bravery in telling her story make the film very worthwhile despite its shortcomings.
With the documentary featuring interviews with both of Julia’s children it allows for frank and important conversations to be captured, delving into the impact of Julia’s transness on their relationships. Sandler highlights the perspective of both Julia in terms of coming out and then her children in processing this change. This is a reality for many families and it’s excellent to see conversations like this taking place in a safe space and then showcased on screen too. Right from the start of the film Julia makes her intentions for the documentary incredibly clear, stating that the film is for her own journey but also to help others in her situation or similar to her experience, especially trans children. This caring, progressive and mature motivation is consistently followed up on throughout the documentary thanks to the discussions with her family and her inclusion of such issues in her stand up routines. Therefore allowing Julia and the film to accomplish what she set out to do, educate and inspire others to live their truth.
In addition to this, there’s a lot to be said about the combination of Julia’s transgender identity and her career as a comedian. The insight shed on this is most definitely engaging, with one specific scene in which Julia watches old footage of herself making transphobic jokes being particularly affecting. This moment is effective in showing how transgender, and also the wider members of the LGBTQ+ community can go to extreme lengths to deny and repress their queerness as a result of the toxic trans, and homophobia that still exists today. It’s these small and unique insights which help to inform the larger conversation about trans lives that gives the documentary credibility and relevance. Furthermore, of course depending on your taste and with the trans jokes aside obviously, Julia’s humour adds a comedic flair to the film that helps its pace and energy, making it an entertaining as well as an informative watch.
So although Julia Scotti: Funny That Way can’t quite live up to the remarkable nature of the woman herself, it still remains an engaging insight into the life of an older trans woman working in the entertainment industry. It holds some potential for educating audiences, but it’s showcasing of Julia’s deeply personal story will prove the most memorable aspect of the film. However, in struggling to know exactly what way to tell Julia’s story, the film does become unfocused, although as long as Julia has the floor it’s worth paying attention to. A funny, charming and at times emotional story of a woman and her family, this documentary is an honest and incredibly approachable addition to the ever expanding genre of queer, and more specifically, trans cinema – a genre that needs to reach the mainstream. Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is another valid step towards that destination.