Oscar-nominated Chilean film 'A Fantastic Woman' puts a strong trans woman in the spotlight

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Watching “A Fantastic Woman,” I couldn’t help but think about the comments underneath a recent tweet by The Washington Times.

“Is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?,” the tweet reads. “A growing body of research says no.”

The replies contained a massive pool of insults, with some calling Jenner an “it,” others called her an “alien” and others called her a “monster.”

In this atmosphere, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” boldly follows transgender woman Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), who fights every day for the right to be herself. As the film progresses, it reveals itself as both a poignant story of loss and a window into the life of an unrepresented community. Lelio, simply by showing the struggles faced by a trans woman, is making a statement film, pulling double duty and succeeding on both levels.

The story opens with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a divorced, cisgender, heterosexual man in a relationship with Marina. The two have a seemingly normal, healthy partnership — he works a day job, she waits tables and sings at a club, they go out for drinks and then head home to have sex. Lelio does not objectify or make a big deal out of Orlando and Marina’s sexual relationship. It just feels like another part of living. Their life feels routine, but never unromantic.

Very early on in the story, Orlando dies of a sudden aneurysm, and Marina is left to pick up the pieces of his life. Though not the first movie of this kind, “A Fantastic Woman” is a new take on the grief film, made so much more impactful by the size of the hole Orlando leaves in Marina’s life.

Orlando is survived by a brother, son and ex-wife, each of whom has their own terrible way of relating to Marina. Every member of this family represents a different manner in which society treats trans individuals, starting with Orlando’s acceptance of Marina and slowly disintegrating from there. His brother sees Marina as who she is, but is afraid to stand up to anyone for her; Orlando’s ex-wife sees Marina as a perversion, hurling verbal and psychological abuse at her in every scene; and Orlando’s son is the worst offender, physically assaulting Marina for her own existence. It makes for a brutally difficult film to watch, but a challenging, brilliant work of art.

Vega gives one of the best performances in any film released in the past year, and it’s a shame the film is only nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Through a wide range of nuanced facial expressions and a towering screen presence, Vega dominates the movie. She largely plays Marina as a restrained, quiet individual, allowing glimpses of her grief through small facial tics and body posture. In the few moments where she’s allowed to let loose and show her emotion, Vega shows the tragic pain of a heartbroken, misunderstood human who just seeks acceptance. These moments where her pain surfaces act as punctuation marks on an already brilliant performance, proving Vega as a fully formed performer in only her second film.

It is groundbreaking that Vega is transgender herself, as Hollywood has a history of hiring cisgender men to play trans women, including Eddie Redmayne, Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor. But these actors generally tell the same story about a trans woman undergoing her transition, and Lelio has no interest in Hollywood’s vision of trans women. The picture he paints is of a woman undergoing a personal loss, a woman who faces an inordinate amount of obstacles, a woman who may be called “it,” “alien” and “monster,” but emerges fantastic.

“A Fantastic Woman”
Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes
Score: 4.5/5 stars