“Change is difficult” is a generally accepted truism that’s rarely understood so potently as by those who go through experiences so transformative that they’re literally making the choice to come out the other side as a different person. This is a common experience for many transgender individuals, whose choice to pursue personal fulfillment often has consequences to their perception in the world and their place within it. Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda’s Stay On Board: The Leo Baker Story rather elegantly captures the turmoil of social transition, following one skateboarder’s journey to self-fulfillment despite the pressures placed upon him by gendered expectation.
Leo Baker came to prominence in the women’s skateboarding scene from a young age, earning him acclaim as one of the most noted athletes in the field and cementing a spot on the first-ever Olympic skateboarding competition in 2020. The problem, of course, is that by then he had already figured out that he was a transgender man, living a dual life: privately, he could be called by his chosen name and correctly gendered by friends and family; publicly, his career depended on the brand recognition of his birth name and status as a “woman” skateboarder.
Primarily filmed in 2019 in the run-up to the Olympic games, Stay On Board follows Baker through this escalating personal and professional crisis, where he’s adored by the world under a name that elicits pain, and terrified by what he stands to lose by embracing authenticity. The historic pride of being one of the first Olympic skateboarders is an opportunity that will never come around again. But the psychological burden of acquiescing to fan and sponsor expectations only compounds with time. The division between personal truth and public persona becomes an ever-widening gap that threatens to break Leo’s career, but much more importantly, his sense of self.
Marsh and Reda never try to present Leo’s story as anything more than a biographical snapshot of this pivotal period in Leo’s life, relying on talking head interviews with his friends, family, and professional acquaintances to bridge thematic gaps between footage captured from following Leo around. Still, they strike upon some immensely relatable aspects of transgender experience through the specificity of their portrayal. Leo speaks to the pressures exerted on him from a young age, creating a developmental response to embrace femininity—not merely in the usual ways in which kids are divided by gender, but as a direct consequence of being embraced as a young woman in sports.
Institutional divisions between male and female skateboarders, and the sponsorships that allowed Leo to skate to support his struggling family from a very young age, were capitalistic forces incentivizing him to embrace femininity for the sake of financial security and professional fulfillment. Even cutting his hair to a short length was enough to stall out his career for a while, so the potential harm to his future livelihood in the professional skateboard scene is considerable, a fact the camera observes with passive sympathy.
If Stay On Board does have one major stumbling block, it’s a failure to find more to fill out its meager 73 minute runtime. Additionally, one thing that may confuse non-queer or otherwise uninitiated viewers is the film’s conflation of non-binary and binary transgender identities, where interviewees default to they/them pronouns for Leo in moments of personal and professional ambiguity, despite the fact that Leo himself almost constantly and universally refers to himself as a boy. This unintentionally carries an implication that non-binary and transgender identities are linguistically interchangeable—a complex idea that isn’t sufficiently examined—so even though Leo accepts they/them pronouns, he is not explicitly identified as non-binary in the film, so the conflation of the concepts fails to adequately explore the intersection of non-binary identity and social transition.
Furthermore, the film’s epilogue is somewhat protracted by a strange insistence on highlighting the evolving relationship between Leo and his girlfriend Melissa Bueno-Woerner (incidentally one of the film’s producers) in the early days of the 2020 pandemic shutdown. Though it nominally establishes a period of time when Leo more fully embraces himself—and is loved in return for doing so—the choice mainly feels like a flimsy bridge between the main focus of Leo’s journey and an affecting coda.
Prioritizing these moments to extend an hour’s worth of story to nominal feature length feel misguided. But ultimately, Leo Baker is a talented skateboarder and a happy, fulfilled human being who just so happens to be transgender, and if his story is enough to convince even one trans person to pursue their bliss, then it’s worth sharing. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers understand and clearly empathize with their subject enough to portray him with love and acceptance. Despite briefly losing its balance, Stay On Board sticks the landing, crafting a story of self-love and determined self-actualization that many pre-transition queer folks will find aspirational.