What’s in a name? Valentina replies unequivocally: a lot. Cássio Pereira dos Santos’ debut feature film takes as one of its leitmotifs the bureaucratic obstacles transgender individuals face to achieve full recognition for their chosen name in Brazil. Putting William Shakespeare’s poetic query to rest, Valentina is a reminder that the most elementary form of social acknowledgment can be a site for trauma, battle and victory. Name-giving is integral to the perpetuation of societal gendered structures, which makes the act of changing one’s name a drastic demarcation from the norm.
Valentina (played by the YouTuber Thiessa Woinbackk) is 17 when she and her mum, Marcia (Guta Stresser), move to a dilapidated town in interior Minas Gerais. Hoping to leave her past behind, Valentina, fully supported by her protective mother, plans to live as herself without having to give justifications about her past. She forms a loyal group of friends, but things don’t go according to plan. Valentina braves the empty streets on her own at night; she passes out on a bed during a party; she is simply sitting in the school director’s office or in the police station. The menace of exposure is imminent, and eventually word gets around about Valentina’s history, putting her well-being and that of those around her at risk. Much of the film revolves around the consequences of this situation, and the intricacy is refreshingly handled without visual and gestural exploitative devices that are commonplace in many films (mostly directed by cisgender men) on trans lives.
Despite being a coming-of-age story, Valentina’s real focus is on the protagonist’s relationship not with herself but with the world. The heart-warming dialogues with her mother and friends make for the film’s most engaging moments. These interactions are also where Valentina’ occasionally falls short. During a game of truth or dare, the title character confesses that her worst fear is never finding her estranged father again (she needs his signature so that she can use her social name at school). Yet, once they finally reunite, the significance of their relationship goes ignored. The discontinuation of this and other plot points is owed to the existence of multiple characters’ storylines which, though somewhat clumsily weaved, manage to provide a complex social portrait of gay dating, machismo, teenage pregnancy and fervent Catholicism in contemporary Brazil.
Valentina sheds all artifice (there is no score and the visuals are accurately austere), giving prominence to Woinbackk’s subtle acting, in what’s her first professional job. This realism speaks to the film’s forthright political thrust. In the time between Valentina’s conceptualisation seven years ago (when funding was secured) and its production and release, Brazil went from a socialist to an anti-LGBTQ+, far-right government, whose president Jair Bolsonaro bases his governance on nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ended in 1985. Today’s figures are increasingly grim for Brazil’s trans youth: 82 percent of trans kids drop out of school; 35 years is their life expectancy. Thus, the story of Valentina, played by a trans actor herself, becomes a meditation on the wider fight for the rights and safety of transgender people in Brazil. When Valentina sheds her judicious coolness to defy one of her opponents and shouts “what bothers you so much about my freedom?,” she is speaking beyond the screen to Bolsonaro and his supporters.
Just being Valentina comes with risks. But her capacity to pour love into herself and to accept the affection of those around her is the glue that keeps the film together. Though somewhat imperfect, Pereira dos Santos’ first feature shows promise and is a testament to his ability to portray queer characters with granular subtlety and political meaning.
Luís Correia (@correialuis_) is a London-based writer, film programmer, art historian and thinker. His previous work has focused on queer history, the representation of the body in film, European visual culture and the emancipatory politics of art.