A Fantastic Woman, B+
Rated R, 104 minutes
In Spanish with English subtitles
"A Fantastic Woman" could be called the Chilean version of "The Crying Game." Comparisons to that 1992 hit film are inevitable, but the superbly acted, affecting "A Fantastic Woman" stands on its own just fine. Subtle yet still powerful, this import from Chile is nominated for the Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards and if there's still any nominated films you need to see before the awards are handed out next week, add this one to it.
A transgender singer and waitress named Marina (transgender actress and singer Daniela Vega, excellent here) faces scorn and discrimination after the sudden death of her older boyfriend, Orlando (Fransisco Reyes). For most of Orlando's family, her gender identity is an aberration, a perversion, so Marina struggles for the right to be herself. She battles the very same forces that she has spent a lifetime fighting just to become what she is now - a complex, strong, forthright and fantastic woman.
"A Fantastic Woman" is just that: a fantastic, relevant and stirring portrait of love, family and gender identity. It's well-handled by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio ("Disobedience"), who also co-wrote the script with Gonzalo Maza. Lelio skillfully and thoughtfully introduces you to Marina's identity, as it doesn't become fully known until about 30 minutes into the film.
There are two primary reasons to see the film, the first is the astonishingly nuanced turn from Vega, a real transgender actress (who could also pass for Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) in an auspicious film debut. She brings to life a strong, complex character who ultimately makes you forget that she's even transgender, especially in the lovely final coda to the film, in which Vega sings a very touching aria.
Second, is the memorably haunting score from British musician Matthew Herbert, which adds perfect texture to the film, particularly in the final act. There are a couple of subplots that are left dangling involving Orlando's family, and there's a cheap scene in a doctor's examination room that seems unnecessary given that by the time of the scene, we're fully aware of Marina's identity.
Those are minor flaws in a well-executed film that could've easily come across as soapy and exploitative. "A Fantastic Woman" is a satisfying, occasionally slow-moving tribute to love and acceptance, but Vega's performance will stay with you long after you leave the theater.