Review: Valentina

Written and directed by Cássio Pereira dos Santos, a trans girl and her mother move to a new town in order to start fresh, but quickly face dilemmas when the local high school needs a second parental signature for enrolment. Thiessa Woinbackk, Guta Stresser, Rômulo Braga, Ronaldo Bonafro and Maria De Maria.

Towns with old-fashioned mindsets, where gossip spreads like wildfire is no place for a young, sensitive, transitioning teen so it makes perfect sense for Valentina and her mother to move to a quiet place to start again. The great thing about Santos’s writing is that while the opening might achieve a more stereotypical situation of being outed as a trans person, it keeps the drama fairly minimal throughout. It without a doubt has serious and heated moments but they’re written in such a way that it reins itself in, and lets those moments and their consequences speak for themselves rather than trying to throw it in your face for shock value. When Valentina arrives in this new town, it’s touching to see how quickly she fits in and makes friends and that aspect takes a big chunk of the story, following her life as a teen. It’s not all about the fact that she’s a trans woman, yes it influences the more chaotic and hurtful moments but it centres around her as a person not just her gender identity.

There are a number of layers to this story right off the bat but the surprising thing is Santos doesn’t stop there, he takes it even further. One particular vein of that deals with sexual assault, emotional manipulation and threatening behaviour, it’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch knowing how many women will have experienced something similar. While it does tackle serious issues, it still has a positive message to send about celebrating the victories along the way, even if the battle is far from finished. It’s also another example of what it means to trans people to have supportive friends and family. Valentina’s relationship with her mother with its unrelenting love makes all the difference to this story, it would be a very different tale without it.

Of course the entire premise is on the shoulders of Thiessa Woinbackk and her performance as Valentina but there’s no course for worry there because she’s superb. Her portrayal has a terrific balance of confidence and vulnerability, it’s great to see her put forth such a resilience and a commitment to knowing who she is. Ronaldo Bonafro and Letícia Franco are an excellent supporting cast alongside Woinbackk, they each have very individual personalities and problems, they’re well-rounded characters that feel substantial rather than just secondary. Both their performances have an emotional vein in one way or another and they’re utterly relatable. Guta Stresser’s performance as Valentina’s mother Márcia is quite restrained, she’s not pouring out the emotion, she’s holding it beneath the surface where you can see it and appreciate it rather than bombarding you with it. It’s a down to earth portrayal, she’s a very classic maternal type, simply trying to do her best by her daughter.

Santos’s direction similarly feels understated, it’s a humble drama taking place in a small village and the style matches that. It builds an atmosphere of sincerity and youth, it lets the focus really land on the emotions of its story for the biggest impact. It does feel as though the story could have gone more deeply into the subject, it gets the emotion through but you can’t help feeling like we’re still scratching at the surface.

Valentina is a moving and affecting portrayal of a young trans teen finding the best way forward without sacrificing who they are. It shows the importance of support and understanding at such a vulnerable time and the vitally positive impact that can have down the line. It’s understated and takes the time to explore Valentina as a person, not just her gender identity. It’s filled with a very youthful energy, it’s a teen centred story but one that still manages to hold a lot of sincerity. The importance of telling stories like these is hammered home by the heart-breaking statistics shown at the end of the film; the life expectancy for trans people in Brazil is 35 and 82% drop out of school. Woinbackk does a genuine justice to the complex character of Valentina and it’s a performance that will stick with you.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare

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