In her second feature film, Fitting In, writer/director Molly McGlynn tells a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, starring Maddie Ziegler and Emily Hampshire, about a teen trying to understand and navigate living with an unexpected health diagnosis.
Ziegler plays 16-year-old Lindy, who's thinking about having sex for the first time, with her boyfriend Adam (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai). But things get complicated for Lindy after a trip to the doctor for birth control turns into a MRKH Syndrome diagnosis.
McGlynn was diagnosed with the reproductive disorder when she was 16, born without a uterus, cervix and a shortened vaginal canal. While McGlynn navigated feelings about her body, her single mother was living with the impact of breast cancer.
In Fitting In, we see Lindy navigating MRKH Syndrome, what that means for her sexuality and her relationship, including being given a box of dilators with the instruction to go through a vagina "bootcamp" to "fix" her body, to have a "normal" teenage life.
"Because it's so personal, obviously I'm thinking about myself and how I may be perceived, and protecting myself," McGlynn told Yahoo Canada during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year. "But ultimately, when you develop a script, you start to think beyond yourself."
"It's contemporary, so I was able to think about a world where there's social media involved, or what would it be like if I had met someone who's intersex when I was younger, and what sort of questions that may be provoked in myself. So it started with my own experience, but things are fictionalized to be contemporary, and ultimately not just be about me."
'[Maddie Ziegler] understands what it's like to feel different than those around her'
While the first time many people became familiar with Ziegler was from her time on the reality show Dance Moms in her youth, followed by her starring roles in music videos for the artist Sia, Ziegler's performance in Fitting In feels honest, captivating and perfectly emotive, effectively moving between that line of more serious story elements, and fun and entertaining moments McGlynn crafted in this film.
"She's so graceful and soft spoken, but there's a ferociousness behind her that I can see," McGlynn said about Ziegler. "Anyone who has seen her dance, she's obviously a force to be reckoned with."
"I was really interested in the fact that she had a really unusual life. I have as well, but for different reasons, but she understands what it's like to feel different than those around her. She understands a relationship with a body, her body, and how she's had to push herself physically. I think so much of Lindy's journey in this film, you see pain in a look, and she's able to capture that."
Part of crafting the character of Lindy was also assisted in McGlynn being an "open book" for the actors in the film, including with Hampshire, whose character Rita is based on McGlynn's mother.
"It's not a documentary. It's not a true autobiographical film, so I also wanted them to bring whatever their take on it was," McGlynn stressed.
Additionally, when writing intersex character Jax, McGlynn allowed actor Ki Griffin to explore what felt most authentic for them.
"I wrote that part and said to them, 'If there's anything here that feels ... not like your lived experience, I will change it,'" McGlynn explained. "Ki felt like it was true to them, and so we went with that."
'The focus is on her her face and her eyes a lot of the time, which tell the story'
For the more intimate moments portrayed in Fitting In, McGlynn stressed that having an intimacy coordinator on set was "crucial."
"If there were any questions Maddie had that she maybe didn't want to ask me, we'd have someone to be a buffer," the filmmaker said.
And while many will recognize that anytime there are medical exams on screen, like what we see in Fitting In with Lindy's male doctor, the focus is usually on the procedure. But in this film, McGlynn's focus is on Lindy's face, and her changing emotions through her experience, and not shying away from exposing how uncomfortable and traumatic those moments can be.
"Going into the film, I was very clear that scenes with sex or pelvic exams, or dilating, it was about the emotional impact of that experience and not the technicalities of what's happening," McGlynn said.
"I wanted to see how it was impacting Lindy. And further to that, I did not want to put Maddie in a position where anything would be objectified, or take taken out of context. The focus is on her her face and her eyes a lot of the time, which tell the story."
While Fitting In takes inspiration from McGlynn's own life, she also put care into portraying the grey areas in terms of reproductive anomalies and identity, and how particular labels won't work for everyone's personal experience.
"When I was doing research for the film, and I was just kind of giving myself a refresher on the condition that I have, I had come across some stuff that included MRKH in intersex classification, and I will say, some people with MRKH do not identify with that label. Some do. Sometimes there's a little bit of friction there," McGlynn said. "But I see both and for me, personally, I don't really cling to one word or another about my identity, because I kind of exist somewhere in between."
"It doesn't bother me if someone wants to say I'm this or I'm that, or I'm not this or I'm not that, but I did want to take an inclusive approach to this. I think having this condition can feel so stigmatizing and I just don't think to stigmatize someone who considers themselves intersex with MRKH, I feel like they should be included as well. Words are important, but they're also just words."
'Very often, the truth is funny'
While McGlynn's film intricately and effectively details Lindy's emotional journey, Fitting In also leans into the incredibly enthralling dark humour, making it truly an incredibly fun story to follow. For us, that's where movies connect and feel real, depicting how sadness and humour are incredibly linked for a lot of people.
"Very often, the truth is funny. Humour is how I survive. It's been my coping mechanism," McGlynn said.
"Also, I wanted to make an entertaining film. People do not want to go see a movie where they're feeling like they're being read a textbook. They may walk away with some new information, but the objective was to make an entertaining film."
Fitting In is now in theatres