Valentina, the debut feature from Brazilian filmmaker Cássio Pereira dos Santos, ends with an alarming statistic. In his native land, an estimated 82% of transgender students drop out of school. When you consider the country has a population of just under 214 million, and gender-diverse individuals—that being, all those who don’t identify as cisgender—make up anywhere between 0.1 and 2% of that, it makes for disturbing reading. Worse still, the life expectancy of transgender men and women in Brazil is just 35.
Drilling down into the numbers, Pereira dos Santos looks to tell the story of just one. It might be a fictional account, but his film is no less informed by a disconcerting, underrepresented reality.
Thiessa Woinbackk stars as Valentina: the titular teenager who must navigate hostility and daily prejudice as she seeks to embrace who she is. Early on, she is refused entry to a nightclub. Reluctantly, she hands over her old ID, to which the bouncer proclaims: “You’re really gonna show me your brother’s ID?”. “That’s me,” she retorts, “five years ago”.
That the film begins with a nod to its protagonist’s past is no coincidence. At its heart, Valentina is a story about a young girl’s attempts to escape a former life—a former self—only to be dragged repeatedly back into the pain of her old existence by social stigma and archaic bureaucracy.
Not long after the unsavoury clubbing experience, Valentina and her compassionate, steadfast mother (Guta Stresser) move to the countryside to start afresh. There, where no one knows that she is trans, it doesn’t take long for Valentina to settle, becoming fast friends with two of her classmates. But her hopes of enrolling at school under her new name are dealt a hefty blow when she discovers that, for her request to be legally ratified, she not only requires the signature of her mother, but also that of her estranged father (Rômulo Braga). To compound matters, a traumatic experience while at a New Year’s Eve fancy-dress party soon sets in motion a series of events that threaten to usurp both Valentina’s newfound happiness and her safety.
Despite calling upon on familiar narrative beats, this is a fervent outcry with plenty to ponder. A thematic melting pot simmers away behind this impassioned coming-of-age tale, as writer-director Pereira dos Santos balances both Valentina’s personal afflictions with examinations of Brazil’s wider social landscape.
The results are mixed. As character-driven drama, it largely succeeds: a timely and transcendent tale elevated in no small way by the shrewd casting of Woinbackk. A popular trans YouTuber and first-time actress, her presence here befits the story perfectly, while her seamless ability to communicate a lot from very little—articulating both strength and vulnerability from a single, momentary glance—helps carry much of the film’s emotional weight.
As a searing indictment of the systems and injustices affecting the transgender community, however, it feels less accomplished. While sensibly avoiding sensationalism, there’s a growing sense, particularly as the film gears towards its final third, of Pereira dos Santos throwing absolutely everything at the wall in the hope that something will stick—that one of his many ideas will resonate. In doing so, however, his story stutters when it should sing.
Ultimately, Valentina is a victim of its own lofty ambition: the product of a filmmaker with a lot to say but never quite sure how best to say it.
An impressive central performance from Woinbackk holds together this myriad of socio-political subtext. Writer-director Cássio Pereira dos Santos might occasionally be the architect of his own downfall, but there’s enough about Valentina to suggest his voice is one we might all do well to listen to.
Words by George Nash
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