jack and yaya

Jack and Yaya hug. (Courtesy/Dan Gibson)

Tales of dynamic duos and inseparable best friends manage to be ones which are both endearing and cliché: Spongebob has Patrick, Thelma has Louise, Bert has Ernie and Han Solo has Chewbacca.

A familiar tale comes in the form of the recent release “Jack & Yaya,” and perhaps nobody sums up this friendship better than Yaya herself when she says, “We just always were.”

“Jack & Yaya” is an independent documentary with a runtime of just under an hour and 25 minutes. Directors Jen Bagley and Mary Hewey tell the story of Jack and Yaya’s friendship, their continued transitions into their true gender identities and the families who learn to embrace them.

The film highlights the struggles of discovering one’s gender identity while acting as a case study for how LGBTQ-identifying people can thrive when treated with the respect and love they deserve. The result is something both succinct and poignant.

The viewer is thrust into the middle of Yaya's life — shots of tossed-aside jewelry and a quarter-full wine glass help portray the lively woman with whom the viewer spends the rest of the film. Yaya, applying her makeup in the mirror in her New Jersey home, discusses her love for Joni Mitchell and for Jack, her childhood friend.

The documentary soon reveals Jack is much more than a childhood friend. The two are more like kindred spirits, as revealed in their own stories and the stories of their family members. When Jack was born, his family viewed him as a girl, and when Yaya was born, her family viewed her as a boy. The two had an understanding of each other since they were little, even when they didn’t have the words to describe their true gender identities.

“[Yaya] would be the mom, I would be the dad, there were no problems,” Jack said while reminiscing on childhood games.

Interviews with Jack, Yaya and their closest family members are both endearing and necessary — each creates a portrait of how people can thrive when they’re accepted by both their born and chosen families. Some members of Jack’s family discuss how they love and support him no matter what pronouns he identifies with most, while Yaya’s grandmother discusses how she’s beautiful as a woman.

Despite the optimism, the accuracy and reality of identifying as transgender comes to light in other interviews. Although gay himself, Yaya’s brother reveals he was originally opposed to her transition, calling her a “trannie” when he first learned of her true identity. Jack’s mother expressed her disappointment when he initially came out as a lesbian cisgender woman. Yaya recounted how her mother, in her last months of life due to brain cancer, wished to see her son instead of her newly-discovered daughter.

Despite these closed-minded and harsh reactions from their relatives, Jack and Yaya managed to forgive, and their families apologized. This is another highlight of the film: scenes that show how family members can change and come around to Jack and Yaya’s true selves is a fair and accurate representation of the main subject’s stories. The directors did well to show the pain that these reactions caused while also representing how time has changed their minds.

Near the end of the movie, Jack’s family is filmed while they watched a Super Bowl game where the Philadelphia Eagles took home the trophy. It is moments like this in the film — with family members hunched around a TV, drinking Busch Light and sharing laughs and cheers — that highlight the fact that transgender people can and will thrive with a solid support system.

While the film’s purpose was to tell the story of Jack and Yaya’s friendship and did so seamlessly, it’s also a story about family, self-acceptance and the complexity of life.

“Our friendship is huge,” Jack said near the end of the film. It became evident at the end of the film: so are their lives.

Jack & Yaya is now available to stream on Vimeo for $4.99.

Directors: Mary Hewey, Jen Bagley

Running time: 84 minutes

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