Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Trans representation is about more than coming-out stories. This film shows how to do it

Canadian-Swiss production Something You Said Last Night takes trans storytelling in important new directions and steers clear of overused tropes. This year's St. John's International Women's Film Festival is bringing the film and its team to town.
A woman rides as a passenger in a car laughs as the breeze through the open window blows her hair.
In the film Something You Said Last Night, Carmen Madonia stars as Ren, a trans woman in her mid-20s. (Mongrel Media)

This column is an opinion by Rhea Rollmann, a writer, journalist and radio producer in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When I came out as a trans woman and started to transition, I noticed a certain low-level anxiety accompany me when I went into the world. Everyday activities — grocery shopping, browsing in a bookstore, taking the bus — made me feel nervous and unsettled.

It had nothing to do with my being trans — I was happier than ever with who I was. I felt mentally grounded and emotionally stable as never before. I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with my body, thanks to the life-saving wonders of hormone therapy.

Rather, my sense of unease had everything to do with the reactions of people around me — the uncertainty and confusion of a society still coming to terms with the fact that gender is neither binary, nor fixed, nor as simple as many of us were brought up to think.

That anxiety has lessened with time, in part with hormones and other transition-related care, and in part because I began to feel more confident in my identity and care less about the confusion of others.

It's also thanks to the work of those who are actively building a more inclusive and educated society — it's truly admirable how many store clerks today eschew the old-fashioned "sir" and "ma'am" (which, let's be honest, were never really appropriate in the post-Victorian age) for the very folksy and gender-inclusive "my friend," "my dear," or, in Newfoundland, "my love" — which looks odd on the page, but said in a hearty Newfoundland accent it's the most natural greeting in the world.

Two women stand smiling behind a man seated in front of a cake with candles.
A scene from Something You Said Last Night, starring Carmen Madonia, right, as Ren, Joe Parro, seated, as Guido, and Paige Evans, left as Sienna. (Mongrel Media)

But a similar kind of low-key anxiety continues to flavour my encounters with media and popular culture, especially when trans people are the subject.

Pop culture strives to be diverse and inclusive — incorporating a growing range of identities into film and television — but all too often scriptwriters slip into a handful of easily recognizable tropes.

Where trans characters are concerned, this means plots invariably focus on coming-out stories. Drama centres on themes of rejection and exclusion, and misgendering is a plot device. Trans protagonists become a foil against which we are reminded of all the ways our society excludes and hurts the marginalized.

To watch any major streaming service, you'd think trans people's life experiences consist of nothing but perpetual coming-out stories. When I am told a movie deals with "trans issues," that low-level anxiety returns and I watch with gritted teeth, bracing myself for these inevitable plot devices to appear.

Being trans or having a trans child doesn't mean those broader challenges go away, and that is something pop culture creators often seem to forget.​​​- Rhea Rollmann

Fortunately, the Canadian-Swiss film Something You Said Last Night steers clear of these overused tropes. Director Luis De Filippis is one of the exciting young filmmakers taking trans filmmaking in new directions. The award-winning director and co-founder of the Trans Film Mentorship premiered her debut feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it won the 2022 Changemaker Award.

The film comes to the St. John's International Women's Film Festival on Sunday.

Something You Said Last Night refuses to fall into conventional trans storytelling techniques, and it's refreshing. It's a reminder that filmmaking is driven by imagination, and imagination allows us to conceive new ways of telling old stories.

The story told in Something You Said Last Night is of a family struggling to maintain bonds of love and connection against all the challenges posed by modern life. And although the key protagonist — a 20-something daughter named Ren — is trans, her identity is not one of those challenges. She's accepted and loved by her feisty Italian-Canadian family — case closed.

A woman sits in a chair looking directly into the camera lens.
Luis De Filippis directed Something You Said Last Night. (Mongrel Media)

But acceptance doesn't mean life is smooth-sailing. Ren and her family face the same challenges we all do: a sputtering job market devoid of meaningful opportunities for the young, intergenerational conflicts driven by the competing desires of parents to protect and young people to assert autonomy, and the social alienation of a world in which we live virtually on cellphones and social media sites yet yearn for the visceral: physical and sexual contact with others.

Being trans or having a trans child doesn't mean those broader challenges go away, and that is something pop culture creators often seem to forget.

We learn through doing — but witnessing others navigate these struggles gives us a sense of how it might be done. Something You Said Last Night reminds us that however challenging our lives may be, it is through our connection with others that we find the strength to move forward.

Our expectations of the social world are influenced by what we see on film and television.- Rhea Rollmann

Yes, we all feel resentment and anger at today's world, the sting of missed opportunity and the acrimonious judgment of others. But we possess a powerful tool — empathy — that if used correctly can prove the match of many of those negative emotions we encounter. Knowing when to open ourselves in empathy to others, and when to reject the compromises that would undermine our sense of dignity — therein lies the challenge of modern life.

It's a challenge this film deftly explores.

Something You Said Last Night engages these issues in a big-hearted, tightly produced film that not only resonates with cis and trans audiences alike, but also reminds us we have more in common than we do in difference. Remarkably, it's a debut effort for Carmen Madonia, who was named a TIFF Rising Star for her portrayal of Ren. Her performance is sublime, genuine, moving, and complemented perfectly by the talented cast surrounding her.

Her relationship with her sister in the film offers a beautiful, consummate example of the depth and complexity of sibling relationships poised awkwardly between love and rivalry, yet untouched by hate or bigotry.

A woman lies on her stomach on a unfolded couch bed.
Madoni stars as Ren, a trans woman, in the Canadian-Swiss film. (Mongrel Media)

The film doesn't ignore Ren's trans identity — far from it — but offers a more real and genuine portrayal of what it's like for a trans person moving through the world than cinema normally provides. This sort of representation matters. The tropes I repeatedly encountered in pop culture no doubt helped shape my own anxiety about leaving the house during those early months of transition.

Our expectations of the social world are influenced by what we see on film and television.

When we move beyond the tropes and stereotypes, we realize just how rich life can be, and in this life truly imitates art. Director Luis De Filippis has crafted a perfectly wrought drama that eschews stereotypes without ignoring the ubiquitous contradictions of modern life.

It's a stirring reminder that what we should be focused on is not how others are different from us, but how to understand and forge truly meaningful relationships with each other. Relationships strong enough to last a lifetime, yet flexible enough to adapt to all the changes that lifetime will bring.

See Something You Said Last Night at the Avalon Mall Cineplex on Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online from the St. John's International Women's Film Festival, or join me for a brunch Q&A with Luis and Carmen (reserve your free seat here).

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Rhea Rollmann is a writer, journalist and radio producer in St. John's, N.L.