In Brazil, 82% of trans kids will drop out of school at some point during their education. Among these children is Valentina (Thiessa Woinbackk) a 17-year-old girl who’s just moved across the country with her mother Márcia (Guta Stresser) to start afresh in a new town and retake her sophomore year. However, problems arise when Valentina requires the signatures of both her mother and father – who she has been unable to contact for months – to register her social name at her new school. Terrified of her schoolmates finding out about her trans identity and deadname, Valentina is set off on a race against time to try and find her father. Under the rule of militantly right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro – a man who declares himself a ‘proud homophobe’ – transphobic ideologies and prejudice in Brazil are only set to rise. Set against this backdrop of hate and discrimination, Cássio Pereira dos Santos’ Valentina unravels the harsh realities of growing up as a trans teen in Brazil while simultaneously leaning into ideologies of hope and a firm sense of trust in the future generation and their ability to enact positive change.
Photo © Valentina
Naturally, Valentina is full of all the coming-of-age cliches and tropes that so often fill teen dramas. The plot is packed full of the usual new-kid-at-school awkward experiences, first crushes, an imperfect father-daughter relationship, and of course, the mandatory teenage party scene. However, Pereira dos Santos takes a fresh set of eyes to adolescence as the film starts to examine the trans experience in the formative years and in particular transmisogyny. In one scene, Valentina and her friends try to sneak into a club with fake IDs. However, rather than just lying about her age, Valentina’s main concern is that her fraudulent identification is adjusted to show her real name as opposed to her deadname. Failing to pass off her fake ID as real, Valentina has to reluctantly hand over her old ID to get in. Once inside, the humiliation and mistreatment doesn’t stop as Valentina is attacked by a guy on the dancefloor who discovers that she is trans after kissing her. A glimpse into the everyday aggressions facing transwomen, Valentina tentatively exposes the additional barriers and violence facing young transgirls on a regular basis.
Starting at her new school, Valentina quickly makes friends with Amanda (Letícia Franco) and Júlio (Ronaldo Bonafro). Amanda is a mastermind techie who helps Valentina track down her father by hacking his phone – skills usually reserved for rigging video games – and Júlio is a bubbly romantic-type looking for his next Romeo. Even when defamatory edited photos of Valentina and rumours about her start to circle the school, Valentina is still luckily supported by her sympathetic friends – and later on, her other classmates. Although feeling a little naïve and clumsy at times – in one syrupy scene, students that Valentina barely knows crowd around her to defend her from a man wielding a knife – Valentina’s unfailing and good-natured belief that the next generation will make amends and do right is heart-warming and definitely needed in an era of such animosity and mistreatment.
Photo © Valentina
Another endearing aspect of the film is Valentina’s bond with her mother. Hell-bent on ensuring her daughter is accepted at her school and able to live her life freely, Valentina’s mother regularly goes above and beyond to ensure her daughter’s safety. Opting away from routes such as closeted teens and unsupportive parents, Valentina goes on to urge that even with a strong support network and a caring family, there are still oppressive systems in place that routinely undermine trans individuals and still a whole swathe of bigoted and violent ideologies lingering throughout modern-day society.
A recurring theme flowing throughout Valentina is the concept of body and ownership. Whether that’s in the form of Valentina being allowed to self-identify and be addressed at school with the correct pronouns and name or Valentina’s right to attend a party without being groped by a masked stranger – Valentina is ultimately the story of a young girl fighting for autonomy and freedom in a world that is so heavily stacked up against her. When Valentina attempts to seek justice against the boy who assaulted her, she’s met with victim-blaming notions that the boy is a hard-working, respectable, and admired individual who doesn’t deserve scrutiny for his actions. This then further unfolds into Valentina being continuously and violently targeted by the older brother of the boy – in one scene Valentina is even ambushed in a dark alleyway where the brother viciously chops off her hair. Piling on violent incident after violent incident, Valentina is a little unfocused at times as it hops between storylines of Valentina reconnecting with her father, settling into school whilst being bombarded with petitions from intolerant parents, and facing up to her abuser. While the film is ambitious, these issues are sometimes approached without the required depth or concentration needed to seamlessly juggle such a wide range of matters.
A realist piece about transphobic structures and brewing public ideologies of intolerance and ‘othering’, Cássio Pereira dos Santos’ latest film is a crucial portrayal of teen adolescence in contemporary Brazil. Although a little clumsy at times and sometimes lacking a focal point, Valentina excels in its ability to portray tough realities while simultaneously grasping onto an ebullient belief that the next generation will be the ones to change things for the better.
Written by Abi Aherne
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