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Film Review: In “When I’m Her,” A Child Prodigy Heals

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 21st, 2021

Film poster: “When I’m Her”

When I’m Her (Emily Schuman, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.

By the age of 14, ballet dancer Michael Cusumano was a rising star in his field, repository of teachers’ hopes as the next great thing. Though he appeared outwardly poised and won kudos and competitions, inwardly he was anything but calm. Eventually, he would abandon the high-stakes world in which he had until then thrived, unwilling to subject himself to the pressure of expectations or the machinations of  ruthless, sometimes predatory, mentors and handlers. Today, in his early forties, he lives a much more balanced life, thanks in part to the alter ego he adopts whenever he enters the classrooms he now leads. That would be Madame Olga, a simultaneously exacting and gentle (as well as funny) version of the Russian taskmasters he learned from as a child.

In the 15-minute short documentary When I’m Her, director Emily Schuman follows Cusumano in and out of those dance studios, showcasing his cross-dressing transformation and the way it both proves therapeutic for him and entertaining for his students. Interestingly, though everyone laughs at the jokes and exaggerated mannerisms, they are still all there primarily for his/her lessons. Still seemingly as flexible as ever, Madame Olga demonstrates the required moves and gestures in accessible ways, her methods fully engaging, the opposite of the abuse Cusumano indirectly refers to from his own childhood.

Michael Cusumano as Madame Olga in WHEN I’M HER ©Emily Schuman

Schuman also brings in plenty of archival material of young Cusumano on the dance floor and stage, his body a whirring marvel of grace and balance. We watch those films along with Cusumano and his boyfriend (also named Michael, so our protagonist goes by Mikey), the latter’s awe at what his partner was capable of mirroring our own. By the end of this all-too-brief profile, we have been given a glimpse of a life adjusted to deliver maximum healing, a former victim reclaiming agency and self-determination. Madame Olga may come from a place of caricature, but her love and compassion are as real as it gets.

[When I’m Her is out today, June 21, on the PBS Voices digital channel, in coordination with pride month.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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