Shortly before turning 30, Freddy McConnell, a freelance journalist who has worked at The Guardian, made the decision to bear a child. In “Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth,” McConnell, who is transgender, explains that he saw the decision to carry the pregnancy himself as “the pragmatic thing to do.”
Perhaps less obviously pragmatic is undergoing that experience under the observation of a movie crew. With his newspaper involved in the production, McConnell invited the filmmaker Jeanie Finlay to follow him through the process. (Finlay is currently the subject of a Museum of the Moving Image retrospective that will play virtually through July 2.) He told the paper that he felt a responsibility to share the story.
What Finlay absorbingly captures is far more than an ordinary pregnancy. She is present as the prospect of parenthood alters the dynamic between McConnell and his partner, C.J., who initially wants to co-parent with him. (“We’re discovering that we were quite different and didn’t know each other that well,” McConnell explains after C.J. decides not to be involved. In the sort of moment that suggests a potentially intriguing interplay between director and subject, he asks if Finlay has seen C.J. since the separation.)
McConnell has a strained relationship with his father and relays news of the pregnancy to him by email, writing that he’s afraid of how he would react in person.
Most crucially, Finlay trails McConnell as the pregnancy alters his sense of who he is, ushering in what he describes as a “total loss of myself.” After the cessation of testosterone treatments starts changing his body, he finds that he reverts to old, more concealing ways of dressing. Even before a pregnancy is confirmed, he begins thinking more of his previous name and pronouns.
Keeping notes on his pregnancy on standard forms, he crosses out “women,” “mothers,” “her” and “she,” an inscribing experience that he says feels “pretty brutal.” McConnell confesses that even well-meaning cisgender mothers who have shared recollections of pregnancy have made him want to say, “No, it’s not the same.”
“Seahorse” is the sort of documentary that gains its interest less from its technique than from its subject, and from the fact that the filmmaker was present at the right time. Articulate, reflective and unhesitant about getting personal, McConnell makes for a complicated character study.
Although he gave birth to a son in 2018, his story is hardly over, and extends beyond the timeline in the film. In April, The New York Times reported that McConnell lost an appeal to be registered as the boy’s father, not mother. On April 29, he wrote that he was applying to take the case to Britain’s highest court.
Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.