With certain species of seahorse, the males give birth; with others, they have both male and female reproductive organs; still others can change gender depending on reproductive needs. None of this is explicitly stated in director Jeanie Finlay’s new documentary Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth, but as the film goes on, the connection becomes very clear. The film centers on 30-year-old Freddy McConnell, a gay transgender man living in the UK who decides he wants to give birth to a child using a donor. The decision is not an easy one, but compared to the physical and emotional upheaval he goes through to make it happen, it’s perhaps the easiest part of the process.
Given incredible access to Freddy’s life, Finlay moves through the complications and conflicts that arise in order to make this pregnancy happen, including coming to a seemingly joint decision between Freddy and his partner/roommate (the exact nature of their relationship is a bit nebulous), CJ, another transgender man, who the film leads us to believe will be a big part of the 90-minute movie. The two seem so in synch that it comes as a total shock to Freddy and the audience when CJ leaves after the first failed insemination attempt. While the emotional repercussions are very present, no real explanation is given by anyone for his leaving, and it begins a frustrating series of unasked/unanswered questions that crop up during the course of this otherwise unique and fascinatingly revealing journey.
One element of Seahorse that some may find problematic is that Freddy is part of the time-honored tradition of emotionally reserved British men, so although he is quite verbal most of the time when explaining the process of coming off male hormones and beginning the process of getting his body ready for a pregnancy, he often seems emotionally detached from what’s happening to him. Personally, I found this aspect of the movie intriguing because it personifies the many conflicts and questions concerning gender, family and naivety about the birthing process that Freddy had. Still, when Freddy finally confesses his pregnancy to his estranged father (who does not react well to the news initially), his outward reaction is one of quiet disappointment when we know there is something closer to resentment bubbling under the surface.
Other than the issues with his father, Freddy’s concerns about being seen as something less than a man while sporting a baby bump never seem to manifest themselves in the world outside of his circle of family and friends. In fact, he seems to hermit and not even tell many of his friends he’s pregnant, which seems a bit strange, at least for the purposes of this film. Those in the world who might completely reject Freddy or his pregnancy are never directly addressed, confronted or dealt with, which is good for Freddy’s well being but make the film slightly less compelling, especially when your central figure seems to deal with many of his problems by avoiding them entirely.
His relationship with his mother is the heart and soul of the movie, and the way that she and her second husband are with Freddy (who ends up having to live with them for a time after the breakup) is textbook supportive parenting and just all-around beautiful human behavior. Not concerned with being an invisible part of the finished product, the filmmaker does a terrific job asking questions in an effort to draw her subjects out when they aren’t being expressive enough for the camera. Her methods don’t feel intrusive because ultimately her questions and comments add depth and warmth to this highly collaborative project, which I believe everyone involved appreciates. Seahorse is an intimate, personal and ultimately quite beautiful work about an aspect to the world at large that most of us might never see otherwise. The only way we grow and learn to empathize with others is by spending time with them and hearing their stories.
The film is available on On-Demand and on most digital streaming platforms today.
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