Eine total normale Familie / A Perfectly Normal Family

Director: Malou Reymann (Denmark). Year of Release: 2020

Some time around around 1990 (how sad am I? I identified key historical events later in the film and worked my way back). A home movie camera focuses in on newborn baby Emma. It zooms out to show the baby’s father, Thomas, holding her tentatively. After filming Emma’s mother and elder sister, Thomas takes her downstairs to watch the football. Her sister needs to sleep, and Denmark are playing.

Fast forward about a decade. Emma is now an (over-)keen footballer, and Thomas the sort of embarrassing father who kicks a ball around on the sidelines, shouting that he’s Michael Laudrup. Emma tackles him easily, and he takes her back to the car. She complains about her new football coach who seems more interested in teamwork and playing a good game, than actually wanting to win the game.

Back home, Thomas and his wife Helle have a difficult announcement to make to the girls. Helle goes first and blurts out that they are getting a divorce. There is an awkward silence where neither parent explains why. Helle tells Thomas that he’d better tell but the silence continues. Eventually she says that Thomas now wants to live as a woman. “Thomas” asks if they can now call him/her Agnete.

Emma’s sister Caroline (aka Caro) takes it all remarkably coolly. You might see Caro as an idealised character, though she’s going to lose it later in the film, and show that she’s not so sanguine. Emma, on the other hand, is much more conflicted. She’s not a bigot, but she’s just heard not just that her parents are splitting up and that her dad is about to go to Thailand to have an op. This is going to take some processing.

The family attends a session with a therapist whose main job seems to be to go out and comfort whoever last stormed out of the room. At the start of the session, Emma covers her face in a scarf, refusing to look at Agnete, who has turned up in a dress and make up. Helle says that Thomas had promised not to do this. Agnete said, no, this was something that Helle demanded. The kids, especially Caro, are less bothered about this, and just want their parents to stop fighting.

Agnete takes the girls on holiday to Mallorca. Caro reacts enthusiastically, Emma with reservations. She is particularly annoyed that when people they met refer to Agnete as their mother, she doesn’t correct them. Kaya Toft Loholt, the young actor playing Emma emits just the right mixture of rage and confusion – blaming her father/mother for making her life so much more complicated but desperately not wanting to lose what they had together.

Emma finds new ways of feeling both neglected and embarrassed by Agnete. First Agnete won’t join her when she wants to go swimming together – too busy putting on sun cream. Then she does go swimming, but insists on going topless. Later, when they’re playing crazy golf and Emma is having problems getting the ball through the monuments, Agnete laughs. Emma’s problems are at least as much with embarrassing parents as they are with Agnete’s gender identity.

Back in Denmark, Agnete takes the girls bowling. At first, everything seems to be going swimmingly – even Emma is happy. Then Agnete drops the bombshell – she’s got a new job and is moving to London. The girls will have to stay in Denmark to complete school. Caro’s face in particular carries the look of absolute devastation. It’s hard to tell whether Agnete means it when she says that it’s better for the family relationship for her to remain distant. Whatever, Caro feels fully betrayed.

This is when we realise that however cool Caro has been till now, she is still in her early teens. She viciously attacks Emma for having caused all this through a throwaway comment that she wanted rid of Thomas. Until now, the film has largely concentrated on Emma’s inability to deal with what is happening to her. This is the point where it becomes most clear that everyone is struggling – not because being trans is bad, but because they need to deal with a prejudicial society.

At the football club, Emma hears some of the boys (it’s always the boys) cracking jokes about her dad’s op. She loses it again, taking large swigs from a bottle of vodka that is being passed around. Almost inevitably, she ends up in hospital. Equally inevitably there’s a great family reconciliation at the end. I’m not a great fan of this sort of sentimentality, but no-one is a real hero in the film, and the rare moments of people hugging each other are offset by them being dicks most of the time.

The film is all the better for not simply being a feelgood movie. While showing that trans people are, in the words of the title “perfectly normal”, it also shows both how this can bring problems in a transphobic society, and also how family members need time to adjust to a new normality. Yes the family is annoyingly rich and unnaturally smug, but we do feel for their dilemma of wanting to support Agnete but first needing to work through their own problems.

Don’t worry about the problems, this is a noble attempt at a great film, which ended up being very good indeed.

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