Review: Valentina

This award-winning film, the debut feature of Cassio Pereira dos Santos, addresses the predicament of trans teens in a country like Brazil, which has certain built-in cultural mores that are at once accepting of sexual minorities and mistrustful of them. The unassailable premise of the story is that everyone should be able to live the life they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else or otherwise impinge on their right to live their own life. The title character (Thiessa Woinbackk), a lower middle class 17-year-old whose mother has her back but is denied the normal adolescent experiences her peers enjoy, sees her problem as one of exposure. After she is assaulted at a nightclub where a young man comes on to her only to be told she is trans, she urges her mother to quit their home town and move to a new town where no one knows anything about her. The logic of this strategy is both understandable as a plot point and slightly suspicious in terms of how real life works. Conveniently, Valentina’s mother, Marcia (Guta Stresser), has just been certified as a nurse, so the decision to move is made that much easier.

However, after finding a place to rent in the home of an elderly woman, Valentina attempts to enroll at the local high school and while the administrator has no problem with her trans status, in order for her to enroll with her preferred name rather than the one she was given at birth, Raul, she needs the assent of both parents, which means she has to hunt down her estranged father, who, Valentina believes, left because she transitioned. As she searches for him, she becomes more acclimatized to her new environment, making friends at school (which has allowed her a grace period to acquire her father’s signature) and excelling in algebra and chemistry. Tellingly, perhaps, her best friends, who initially do not know she is trans, are the gay stringbean Julio (Ronaldo Bonafro) and the blithely pregnant hacker Amanda (Leticia Franco). Pereira dos Santos follows a fairly formulaic development, alternating normal teen shenanigans with the inevitable creeping public disclosure of Valentina’s situation. However, he keeps the viewer off balance by constantly shifting expectations. When Valentina’s father, Renato (Romulo Braga), finally shows up and does the right thing, he’s not the aggrieved paterfamilias we were expecting, but instead a shy, awkward man whose reasons for leaving turn out to be more complicated than anyone might want to admit. Similarly, once the town bigots start to circulate gossip about Valentina, she finds that not only do her peers come to her aid, but so do most of the adults in her orbit. Which isn’t to say the bigotry isn’t real or destructive (a card at the end informs us that more than 80 percent of trans teens don’t graduate and the life expectancy of a trans person in Brazil is 35), only that it’s owned by a minority. The moral of Valentina may be not be very original, but it’s worth pondering: Most people are kind. They’re just not strong. 

In Portuguese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Valentina home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Campo Cerrado

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