Valentina isn’t your average film that explores trans issues. Most entries within this subgenre foreground transphobia, suffering, and ire, but Valentina instead chronicles the experience of a trans person without frequently relying on her gender as a plot point. Cássio Pereira dos Santos’ film decides to profile the live of trans people, showing the pain but also the joy, and it makes for a film that occasionally hits peaks of being really tender and moving.
The eponymous Valentina is played by Thiessa Woinbackk, a Brazilian YouTuber in her first major acting role. Valentina is on the verge of turning eighteen, and after a traumatic event led to a brief hiatus from school, she’s ready to return to education following the start of her transition. The film mostly charts her experience at summer school, as she reintegrates into the education system and cuts the red tape required for her teachers to see her as the woman she is. In many ways, Santos’ film follows plenty of the well-trodden plot beats of a teen high school drama, from attempts to go partying to crushes on football boys, but it’s the trans perspective that makes it stand out.
Nothing comes easy to Valentina: she has to battle to track down her father, with his signature crucial for her legal forms, faces a backlash from religious pressure groups within the Brazilian landscape, and fears her friends finding out her secret. The characters feel so real thanks to Santos’ script: you’ll feel genuine elation and ire throughout the film, and the chemistry between the leads – particularly Valentina and her friend Júlio – is palpable. The scenes of adolescent intimacy, friendship, and abandon are truly a treat to watch, highlighting the innocence and freedom of people who simply just want to live their truths.
Valentina has an important message at its core, touching on concepts like sexual assault, transphobia, and patriarchy. Films in this genre are often termed ‘important’, but Valentina truly earns this accolade through its careful examination of the oppressive nature of male power, the constant threat of transphobia, and the impact of trauma. It’s at times really hard to watch, and the last sequence is truly jaw-dropping, directed so carefully. There’s points where you worry that transphobia will really overpower – without going into it, Valentina is at times very downbeat – but the message at its core is that resistance is key, and trans people are going nowhere.
While it could’ve used a little more development of its supporting characters, particularly Valentina’s mother and pregnant friend, Valentina is a crucial look at why trans issues are so pressing, by conveying the life of a trans woman at such an important time in her life. Santos’ direction heralds a really confident and moving lead performance, and even if it occasionally dwells on the dour, it’s necessary viewing, to see why we all need to fight for trans rights.