Fresh off its win for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this past weekend, "A Fantastic Woman" is set to arrive in local theaters on Friday. The drama from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio tells the story of a headstrong young transgender woman named Marina -- the fantastic woman of the title -- as she faces down a world that seems unwilling to see her that way.
As the film begins, Marina (Daniela Vega) has a happy life working as a waitress and nightclub singer in Santiago, Chile, living with her adoring older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Early on, we see the couple enjoy a wonderful evening celebrating Marina's birthday, during which he promises her a trip to the beautiful Iguazu Falls. But their happiness comes to an abrupt end later that night, when Orlando wakes up complaining of a headache and collapses. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but he suffers a fatal aneurysm. Suddenly Marina is left to pick up the pieces and find a path forward without him.
She's immediately treated like a criminal by the doctors at the hospital, and soon detectives arrive to interrogate her about the circumstances of Orlando's death. As Marina faces their probing questions, we get a glimpse of the endless series of microaggressions and outright hostility that members of the trans community face on a daily basis. Despite her protestations, one detective repeatedly refers to her as Daniel, the name still on her ID. But even that seems preferable to what she'll come to face over the coming days.
Unable to grieve for her lover in peace, Marina also faces the disdain of Orlando's family, who want her out of their lives as soon as possible. His son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) demands she vacate the flat she shared with Orlando and takes custody of their dog. Then there's Orlando's ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) who, while asking that Marina hand over the keys to her ex-husband's car, calls her a "chimera" and her relationship with Orlando a "perversion," before forbidding Marina to attend the wake or funeral.
The individuals who mean well aren't much better, including a female investigator (Amparo Noguera) from the sex crimes division who subjects Marina to a humiliating physical exam, convinced that she must have been in an abusive relationship or been exploited in some way. It's seemingly impossible to imagine that she and Orlando would have shared a happy life together like any other couple.
Throughout the film Marina faces bigotry, cruelty, and discrimination, but miraculously keeps her composure. It's at times upsetting to watch, but Lelio tells the story with empathy and compassion; Marina's unyielding strength helps the film avoid descending into bleakness. Like Lelio's 2013 comedy "Gloria," this is another character study about a strong-willed female protagonist who refuses to let society push her to the margins. The film's bold blend of romance and melodrama with a bit of noir-tinged intrigue hint at the influence of the films of Pedro Almodóvar -- as does the colorful, textured lensing from cinematographer BenjamínEchazarreta.
There are sympathetic people in Marina's life, like her sister (Trinidad González) and vocal instructor (Sergio Hernández). Orlando's brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), is the one member of his family to treat her with even a modicum of decency, but there's no one in her life she can really confide in. As a result, Marina mostly keeps her emotions to herself, though Lelio peppers the film with fantastical visual discursions that give us a peek into her inner thoughts and feelings.
But this is Marina's story and hers alone, and as such Daniela Vega remains at the center of every frame. This is only the second screen role for Vega, and hers is a magnetic, luminous performance. She's quite a discovery, and one can only hope that plum roles continue to come her way, because she deserves to be a star.
With the radiant Vega as its emotional core, "A Fantastic Woman" becomes a vibrant tale of self-assertion. In contrast to many trans stories in the movies, this isn't a story about the discovery of oneself; over the course of the film we get to know Marina quite well, but the narrative's power comes from that fact that she's always known exactly who she is.