There are a barrage of questions at the start of “Born to Be,” with director Tania Cypriano undoubtedly anticipating just as many off-screen as you hear Dr. Jess Ting ask of his patients on his daily rounds at Mount Sinai in New York. The hospital has recently opened a Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery a year after the the state made it mandatory for insurance companies to cover gender-affirming surgery and Ting, a plastic surgeon who admits to not having much familiarity with the transgender community before working at the clinic, has to be just as careful with routine medical questions as he would be with his scalpel when a simple query such as “What would you be interested in changing?” can trigger a host of traumatic memories for the person sitting in front of him.
In making a film essentially about the first two years of the clinic, Cypriano is walking a similar tightrope with “Born to Be,” showing great sensitivity to the patients who are at their most vulnerable as they await some form of physical transformation, whether that’s a complete gender reassignment surgery or a change in hairline, while evincing considerable curiosity about what’s uncharted territory for all involved. With a public mandate to perform surgeries which up until now were largely the province of the few private practices willing to handle them, the Mount Sinai Center is able to apply the full freight of their resources and know-how to procedures that had rarely been improved upon because of access to equipment or training, and the ability to pay for such services through insurance opens the floodgates, a situation that can be seen as intimidating when each individual case requires different care with little experience to fall back on, but the filmmaker shrewdly repositions as an exciting opportunity for innovation for the medical staff, as well as providing an understanding of the unique needs of the transgender community when the doctors are learning as much as the audience.
Naturally, “Born to Be” coalesces around a few specific patients – Devin, a very chatty 21-year-old preparing for vaginoplasty, Mahogany, a former model who gave up her livelihood upon realizing she couldn’t stand being in a man’s body any longer and now getting facial feminization surgery, Jordan, a 30-year-old phalloplasty candidate, and Cashmere, a veteran of the New York ballroom scene since the days of “Paris is Burning” who is finally able to make the transition physically she could only put into words for the past three decades. Yet Cypriano is wise to make Dr. Ting the central focus, both with his good humor and his fleet feet, with the film feeding off his energy as he visits with patients reflecting a diversity of experience and emotional reactions to reconciling external changes with their feelings internally, organically conveying what could be extremely heavy handed in someone else’s hands. This light touch extends to an extraordinarily affecting parallel Cypriano draws between Dr. Ting’s own path to becoming a doctor and the work he is eventually called to do, imagining himself as a classical musician and getting all the way through Juilliard before the world had other plans for him, denying him the ability to be true to himself.
Not only does this allow for some nice moments of music for the film when Dr. Ting pulls out his bass during his rare off-hours, but finding this connection with his patients that he might not understand otherwise goes a long way towards suggesting how such compassion can be found within all of us and rather than being reductive, equating the gender we’re born into and the musical instrument one is innately drawn to play exemplifies the range of ways in which our roles in society are defined for us by forces outside our control and to see everyone in “Born to Be” take their natural form spiritually is beautiful to behold.