By Merle Bertrand | January 23, 2003

A military base is probably just about the last place you’d like to start questioning your sexuality. Especially if it’s a place like Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, the home of the hard-core, testosterone-fueled Airborne Infantry’s “Screaming Eagles” division. For Private Barry Winchell (Troy Garity), an earnest and decent young soldier, questions about his sexuality arise from a sort of sneak attack; an ambush, if you will, which comes in the alluring form of Calpernia Addams (Lee Pace). Calpernia, you see, is a stunning trans-gendered performer at Visions nightclub. Only partway through her transformation, Calpernia is all woman from the waist up, yet a certain crucial $50,000 operation away from completing her sexual reassignment.
Barry first spots Calpernia on a trip to Visions organized by Specialist Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy), a hyperactive beehive of rage, hate, overblown machismo and a manipulative vulnerability. Egged on by Fisher, who orders Barry on a “mission” to determine whether Calpernia is a man or a woman, the gentlemanly soldier immediately becomes smitten with her. A tenuous and awkward courtship follows, one in which “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is as much the policy between Barry and his sexually ambiguous partner as it is official military policy.
It turns out that this newly enacted, cumbersome policy is the least of Barry’s worries, however. For in the zero-tolerance world of the Airborne Infantry, stronger and even deadlier deterrents than “Don’t ask, don’t tell” might be in order, at least in the twisted and unbalanced mind of Specialist Fisher.
“Soldier’s Girl” is a film that could very easily have slipped into campiness or exploitation. The fact that the film is based on a tragic real life true story, however, undoubtedly helped to keep director Frank Pierson’s film grounded in realism. It’s a surprisingly sexy film which pushes just enough buttons to make what would appear to be a highly implausibe scenario — true story or not — somehow seem like not so much of a leap.
Much of this must be attributed to Pace’s astonishing portrayal of Calpernia. A perfect mix of slinky femininity with just enough residual manliness around the edges — the husky voice, the merest shadow of facial hair — Pace’s performance demonstrates how Barry could have found Calpernia so appealing…as well as so forbidden for a straight man in the military.
Garity does a fine job as the ever levelheaded Barry, while Hatosy, too, is excellent as Fisher, an overly wound time bomb whose mere presence on screen serves to ratchet up the tension.
Despite its odd and compelling premise, “Soldier’s Girl” largely follows the same well-worn path trod by many films dealing with forbidden and/or tragic love. As such, there’s a certain sense of missed opportunity surrounding the film. Even so, it’s easily the best story about trans-gendered love to come along in quite a while. And “Soldier’s Girl” is a solid enough romantic tragedy in its own right to be worth a look.

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