‘Something You Said Last Night’ is the kind of trans film we’ve been asking for

REVIEW: Luis De Filippis’s debut feature is a brilliant and tightly constructed family portrait

Looking at pop culture for the past decade, it would be safe to say that trans people have been constantly having “a moment” for representation in film. Point to any milestone—Laverne Cox’s “transgender tipping point” TIME cover during her run on Orange Is the New Black or Michaela Jaé Rodriguez’s historic Emmy win for Pose—and it’s easy to say that this or that is the moment. And yet so much of those groundbreaking moments have centred on depicting the trauma and struggle of transness.

That’s fair: coming out and being trans can be an incredible struggle, particularly in those early moments where you are pushing for acceptance or understanding from the world around you and when the world (as it often is) is particularly cruel. Plenty of groundbreaking TV and film productions centring trans folks have made use of depicting these traumas to break down barriers for trans representation on screen. But for many of us living today in 2022, those moments of initial struggle surrounding coming out to ourselves and those we love eventually give way to a lifetime of just living as a trans person in the world and making peace with the relationships and community we have. 

What happens when filmmakers, producers and studios finally drag themselves out of the trauma hole and start telling different kinds of trans stories or supporting the filmmakers who want to? Luis De Filippis’s breathtaking debut feature, Something You Said Last Night, is a film that steps beyond. And here’s hoping it gets picked up to distribute far and wide, and predates a run of films like it.

Something You Said Last Night follows Ren (Carmen Madonia), a 20-something recently laid-off writer on a family vacation with her college student sister Sienna (Paige Evans) and Italian parents Mona and Guido (Ramona Milano and Joey Parro). It’s a small story that wouldn’t feel out of place in any indie family drama, following the family for a week as they navigate unshared secrets, parental expectations and their relationship with one another through the piney breeze of Ontario’s cottage country.

What’s so revolutionary about Something You Said Last Night is its absence. It is absent of trauma, of coming-outs, or of any of the clichés found in so many depictions of trans people on screen. Instead, it is a quietly small film about a family, their dynamic relationships with each other and what it means to care for one another.

When we meet Ren at the opening of the film, she is already out to her family. She and Sienna have a lived-in intimacy of adult sisters, play-fighting and bickering over a tacky hat with a fish on it. The tension of family dynamic has nothing explicitly to do with Ren’s transness. Whether it was in shouting matches between family members or a well-intentioned phone call with Ren’s grandmother, or even one of a series of encounters with men in the world around them, I kept bracing for the misgendering or offhanded comment that never came. It was only after the film’s final moments that I was able to breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate that the traumatic moment didn’t happen. 

 

I say the film doesn’t centre Ren’s transness “explicitly,” because what elevates Something You Said Last Night is the way De Filippis’s script still hints at the realistic lingering effects of Ren’s being trans, however many years after she has come out. The film is bookended by a quiet moment in the relationship between Ren and Mona, with the latter offering to accompany her daughter to a rest stop washroom. At several points, Mona alludes to how she “worries” about Ren more than her other children, Sienna or the absent brother, who is only mentioned or heard through phone calls. 

The film and its plot are quiet, but complex. A simpler film would present a utopia of a family who handles everything perfectly and gives Ren exactly what she wants when she wants it. But that’s not reality, and this dynamic—a doting mother worried for her daughter who maybe says or does slightly wrong things grounded in that worry—will be achingly familiar to trans folks who are fortunate enough to have an accepting family. 

Madonia is a revelation as Ren. From anxiously sucking on her vape to casting furrowed glances up from rapidly texting fingers, she is a guarded yet stoic presence. Without any explicit words, the viewer gets a strong sense of both the person she is in this family environment and outside of it. She is both standoffish and tender, and De Filippis’s camera lingers on Madonia’s piercing gaze throughout the film, sharing the story through her eyes. 

The film is an indie Canadian production that received a massively warm hometown reception at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, with many of De Filippis’s friends and family in the crowd. During the talkback, De Filippis was asked what she hopes trans people take away from the film. She spoke about the value of sharing family stories grounded in love, and described the film as a love letter to her own family. It’s also worth noting that she worked with the Trans Film Mentorship to bring in and pay a group of young trans filmmakers behind the camera in departments ranging from makeup design to camerwork. The film’s intimacy and realism is enhanced knowing that it was touched by trans folks at every step along the way. 

Something You Said Last Night is a gift for audiences who want trans stories about more than just trauma or coming out. Because we as trans people exist beyond the “moment” or the tipping point, and those stories deserve to be told too. 

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Review, Youth, Canada, Trans

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