It was absolutely heartwarming to see A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean drama about a trans woman’s struggle to overcome the death of a long-term boyfriend, win Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It was even more of a godsend for the film’s lead actress, Daniela Vega, to be included in the broadcast as one of the presenters. The moment reminded me of the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, where Mya Taylor won Best Supporting Female for her performance in the Sean Baker film Tangerine, the first trans woman to ever win an award on that show (in any category). Obviously, the Oscars have a much wider audience reach than the Independent Spirit Awards, so its boost of A Fantastic Woman‘s & Daniela Vega’s profiles is an even bigger deal. Not only did the nomination help push the film into wider distribution (I’ve been waiting for it to reach New Orleans for months), but its win was a huge victory for promoting media where trans characters are actually portrayed onscreen by trans people, a concept that should not be as novel as it is. When you think about Oscar Bait dramas about trans issues, the characters in peril are always portrayed by cisgender performers: Dallas Buyers Club, Boy’s Don’t Cry, The Danish Girl, etc. Daniela Vega’s platform as the lead of an Oscar Winning™ film about a trans woman’s romantic grief is a welcome corrective to that antiquated tradition. Unfortunately, the film itself is antiquated and phony in its own ways, not quite the transcendently lyrical or matter-of-fact authentic document of real life experience I’d hoped it would be. It’s all too easy to see how Tangerine was the punk rock political disruptor that stole the heart of the Indies, while A Fantastic Woman was more palatable to the stuffier members of the Academy.
Daniela Vega is a wonder to watch as A Fantastic Woman‘s titular lead. She’s introduced as a nightclub singer with a loving, older boyfriend and a side job waiting tables. As is necessary for a drama, this domestic stability does not last long; the boyfriend dies of a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night, a harsh end to a tender birthday celebration. This is where the authenticity of daily life is diluted with the same queer misery porn we’ve been watching onscreen for decades. Marina desires to be included in the burial & mourning of her deceased partner, but his bitterly transphobic family and an equally unjust legal system lock her out of the process. That conflict is totally believable, but the ways their disapproval of her gender expression manifest are unconvincing & relentlessly dour. Marina is misgendered, deadnamed, addressed with slurs, accused of being a sex worker, investigated for crimes she obviously didn’t commit, pressured into invading physical examinations, sexually harassed, and physically bullied. It’s tough to watch, but also frequently phony-feeling, particularly in a scene where she’s assaulted with Scotch tape instead of fists. Surely, a modern society treating Marina as if her very existence were “a perversion” feels authentic, but the way the film expresses transmisogyny through constant, blatant attacks personally aimed at her recalls the way racial discrimination is handled in Oscar Worthy dramas like Crash & Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (poorly). It’s so overtly & recognizably evil that it more or less lets the audience off the hook for their own subtler, internalized discrimination, making us feel like better people by comparison to the monsters onscreen. By the time Marina’s singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” alone to herself on a midday drive, the whole thing feels too embarrassingly on-the-nose to possibly be representative of any real life experience, which wouldn’t be a problem if portraying real life experience weren’t obviously what the film was aiming for.
A Fantastic Woman works best when it breaks itself free from real life representation and enters a more lyrical realm. Waterfall mist, intense nightclub lighting, impossible gusts of wind, and the boggy voids of public saunas transcend any dramatic cliché to reach for something more memorably singular. The film’s use of mirrors is especially fascinating, whether they’re used to obscure, abstract, distort, detail, or amplify Marina’s appearance, both for herself and for the audience. Because we don’t spend much time with the couple before the boyfriend’s death, the daydreams where his visage reappears in physical spaces like Marina’s car & apartment are also essential to understanding her inner life and how devastating the loss is for her. Early on, we watch Marina and the boyfriend go on one perfect, intimate date and indulge in some sensuous lovemaking, but the way he physically haunts her daily thoughts says so much more about what he meant to her and how significant it is that she cannot formally mourn his passing. This line of dramatic conflict is more emotionally effective than most of the transphobic oppression that surrounds it, largely because it’s more specific to the character as an individual person than it is meant to be representative of a larger, daily trans woman experience. It’s also, frankly, just cooler to look at. A Fantastic Woman would have been better served by leaning into the fantasy suggested by its title. Its most breathtaking sequence is a nightclub fantasy that leaves the audience’s heads spinning in synchronized dance, glam makeup, and tinsel pompom blouses fit for Carnival, only to crash us back down to a clichéd shot of Marina crying in the rain. That harsh transition is the film in a nutshell: intoxicatingly lyrical insights into Marina’s inner psyche violently interrupted by unwelcome dwellings in the phony misery of her daily life. The character is underserved by the trials the film drags her through by the hair, but still enough of a wonder to watch that the movie feels worthwhile (largely to the credit of Daniela Vega’s performance).
A Fantastic Woman‘s Oscar win is a positive sign for the future of trans characters actually being portrayed by trans performers, but it’s also a reminder that the stories we’re telling about those characters need an update as well. It’s probably unfair to fault the film for being a part of a long-running tradition of well-respected dramas about the misery of daily queer existence, but there are too many kinds of trans stories that are just not being told onscreen in the meantime. For a start, it would be great if we could see a widely-distributed film with a trans lead that wasn’t about gender identity at all. A Fantastic Woman‘s moments of lyrical escape & romantic grief are a welcome nod in that direction, but too much of the film is familiarly miserable in the drama it pulls from queer societal oppression for it to feel like a unique breakthrough. Some of its visual language makes it a standout in the queer misery genre, but the film’s greatest accomplishment is introducing its audience to Daniela Vega’s immediately apparent talents as an onscreen presence. Let’s just hope that the next lead role she lands is more worthy of her (or, more practically, let’s hope that one will ever exist at all).