The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Fantastic Woman

A Fantastic Woman is the kind of film that could change minds and open hearts. Roger Ebert used to say that movies are a machine that generates empathy. That's certainly true in this stunning Chilean import from director Sebastian Lelio. The story deals with a transgender woman and how she is treated by those around her following a tragedy. When it comes to transgender issues, there are two types of cis people: the ones who attempt to understand, and the ones who choose to ridicule or criticize. While in no way intended to be a “message movie,” A Fantastic Woman serves as a reminder that no matter our differences, we all feel the same emotions.

Trans actress Daniela Vega gives a mesmerizing lead performance as Marina. She's a waitress by day and a nightclub singer after hours. Her older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), has a heart attack shortly after they've finished having sex. Rushing him to the hospital, Marina finds herself viewed suspiciously by the medical staff. After Orlando passes away, they even call in a detective to determine whether she might in some way be responsible.

The treatment by Orlando's family is even worse. Brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) attempts to show a little compassion, understanding that his loss is hers, too. Orlando's ex-wife, on the other hand, tries to come across as sympathetic, only to let her revulsion seep through. His son is the worst of all, threatening to take away the apartment and dog she shared with Orlando, as well as openly showing hostility.

A Fantastic Woman carefully, delicately shows Marina's sense of mourning, which makes the reactions she gets from the other characters that much more impactful. The loss of Orlando is every bit as difficult for her as it is for his family members, yet most of them refuse to acknowledge that fact. They are either repulsed by or in denial about his dating a transgender woman, causing them to stop seeing her as a human being. Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gonzalo Maza, depicts the manner in which Marina is essentially dehumanized. Her sorrow doesn't matter since they don't understand her and refuse to accept that Orlando loved her.

It would be so easy to give a “grand” portrayal in a movie such as this. Vega wisely doesn't do that. She goes inward, taking care to illustrate that every rude comment and every rejection is a knife being stuck into Marina. The character is in a daze to begin with, having lost her lover. Dealing with the agony of being judged, dismissed, or even threatened equates to much more than adding insult to injury; it's adding more injury to injury. This is a rich, layered performance that earns your compassion.

A Fantastic Woman refuses to do what Orlando's family does. The film very much sees Marina in totality, not just as someone who is transgender. More importantly, it insists that the audience do the same. Her journey is heartbreaking. Lelio knows that every audience member has, at some point, lost someone they cared about. By showing how Marina's grief process is the same as anyone else's, the commonalities between trans and cis people becomes clearer.

This is an immensely touching story with a riveting actress at the center of it, plus two of the most evocative uses of the Alan Parsons Project's song “Time” that you could ever imagine. A Fantastic Woman earns its title. Marina takes a pretty hard hit, yet it doesn't sink her. She learns to find her voice. The old expression “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger” most certainly applies to this heroine, whose journey enlightens and captivates.

( out of four)

A Fantastic Woman is rated R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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