By Bianca Garner
When she was 11 years old, Malou Reymann’s father transitioned to being a woman. Malou went on to study Directing Fiction at the National Film and Television School, and her semi-autobiographical debut feature film “A Perfectly Normal Family” has been inspired by her own experiences as a child. Featuring towering performances by Kaya Toft Loholt and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, the film tells the story of eleven year old Emma who has a perfectly normal family until one day she discovers that her dad, Thomas, is transgender. As Thomas becomes Agnete, both father and daughter struggle to hold on to what they had, while accepting that everything has changed.
The film is incredibly touching and approaches the subject of transgenderism and transitioning in a sensitive manner and is seen from the perspective of a young pre-teen girl which was an interesting approach to take. Watching the film, I could see that it came from someone who has clearly lived through this experience. The characters of Emma and Thomas/Agnete were incredibly well developed and complex, and the relationship between Thoma/Agnete and their daughter. Emma was beautifully explored. At no point did the film feel exploitative or cynical about the trans experience. And, even though it was directed by a cis-gendered female filmmaker, it was clear that Malou had her own personal connection to the trans experience and had witnessed first-hand the struggles that her own father had endured throughout their own transition. This was a film that came from the heart.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a film that had a trans person at its centre who doesn’t suffer a traumatic ending. Too often we see a trans character having to endure tragedy (whether it be the rape and murder of Teena Brandon in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” or the death of Rayon in the 2013 film “Dallas Buyers Club”) and being refused their ‘happy ending’. In “A Perfectly Normal Family” we see that there is a life for Agnete after they have transitioned and they are accepted by their family. However this isn’t to say that Agnete doesn’t encounter any hardship or bigotry. Malou doesn’t shy away from showing us the struggles that Agnete has to face whether it be the case of being ‘dead named’ by a male relative or facing abuse from a bunch of teenage youths.
“Malou beautifully captured the pain and confusion that Emma felt about the situation involving their father and was awed by how the film reflected not only the transition of Thomas/Agnete but Emma’s own transition from child to young woman.”
I was moved to tears by “A Perfectly Normal Family” because I could see so much of myself reflected in the character of Emma. Although, I don’t want to go into details here, I will mention that when I was growing up a close relative was in the stage of transitioning from a male to a female. I can’t even begin to attempt to speak about their struggles and how they felt, but I can recall many incidents from my childhood where I witnessed transphobia and abuse aimed at them. I felt that Malou beautifully captured the pain and confusion that Emma felt about the situation involving their father and was awed by how the film reflected not only the transition of Thomas/Agnete but Emma’s own transition from child to young woman.
There has been much discussion online in regards to the decision to cast a cis-gendered male actor (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) in the role of Thomas/Agnete. Boe Følsgaard does deliver a stellar performance, but one can’t help but wonder whether a trans actor would have been better suited in the role or perhaps they would have brought something different to the role if they’d drawn on their own experiences. I was slightly nervous about approaching the subject of casting with Malou, as I felt it was the ‘elephant in the room’ and if progression and equality is going to be made in terms of trans representation in the film industry then we can’t skating around the discussion. Malou has responded to the question and has offered an explanation as to her decision. I don’t want people to pass on the film because of the reason that there is a cis-gendered male actor in the leading role, because I believe “A Perfectly Normal Family” is an important story that needs to be depicted on the big screen. Although, I want to stress the need to have more trans actors and filmmakers being offered opportunities in film, because their stories also need to be told.
Please find my interview with Malou below, where we discuss the background to the film, her family’s response to the film and the filmmakers who have inspired her.
Could you kindly provide our readers with some background to your film, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Malou: I had this idea that I would at some point make a film based on my own experience of my dad’s transition from man to woman. I thought I was gonna make it later on, after I had made a few feature films, thinking that then I would be ready and experienced enough to make that film. But it didn’t happen that way. I was working on another film after I graduated from the National Film & TV School but the commissioner at the Danish Film Institute turned it down after the 2nd draft. He invited me for a meeting and asked me if I had any other ideas. I wasn’t prepared for that but I couldn’t say I didn’t have any ideas. So I told him about my family story and said I would like to make something about that at some point. His immediate response was that he wanted to watch that film, so without knowing whether I was ready I just went home and started writing. And luckily the timing of everything was just right. I was ready to deal with the subject in a way that wasn’t self therapy and I was ready to tell the story I wanted to tell and I think on a grander scale time was right to tell a story about transitioning in a setting of ‘normal suburbian family life’.
The film is fiction, not documentary. The characters are characters and not me and my family. There would be a lot of stories to tell from this experience, but I wanted to tell a story about a family that undergoes a massive change, and how they deal with that individually and together, and at the centre of the story is the 11year old daughter and her father who are both trying to hold on to what they had while having to accept that everything has changed. Thematically I was interested in asking ‘how much change can love bear?’
Could you discuss the casting process? What was your decision to cast Mikkel Følsgaard as Thomas/Agnete, as he is CIS-gendered man and he’s playing a character who is transitioning into a female? Have you faced any criticism about this decision and what is your response?
Malou: For me it was important to make a film that dealt with the discrepancy between being normal and being different. And taking the perspective of the 11year old girl enabled me to tell a story of someone who thinks ‘I have a perfectly normal family’ to suddenly dealing with things not being what they seem like, not simple, not binary etc . And that was the key to telling a story that a lot of people can relate to, also people who don’t have any understanding of what it means to be transgender. So since that was the essence of the film for me, I had to establish a family that starts out as ‘perfectly normal’ and that led me casting a man to play the Thomas/Agnete character. I think it’s important to say that we always tell stories in a context. At the moment the norm is still that fathers are men and mothers are women, and if I want to tell a story that deals with a movement from normality to be different, I also have to think about what will an audience perceive as normal.
About the choice of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard specifically it was actually him approaching me about the project and I think that was important because it shows he really had an interest in portraying this character and he was brave enough to really go into the character work and use himself in creating this character and I’m so happy and proud about our collaboration on this film and I think he deserves a lot of credit for this role. On Social Media there has been anger about this film being propaganda to destroy the nuclear family and all good values in our society, on one hand, and on the other hand, there has been anger about another trans character portrayed by a cis male. I think it reflects quite well where we are on gender issues at the moment: there are two very strong poles that are angry, one about too much change happening too fast, the other about too little change happening too slowly.
“I think it’s important to say that we always tell stories in a context. At the moment the norm is still that fathers are men and mothers are women, and if I want to tell a story that deals with a movement from normality to be different, I also have to think about what will an audience perceive as normal. “
The film is probably not for either pole but for people in between those opinions who are trying to navigate in the change that is happening to our understanding of gender not being binary. It IS complicated and it’s okay to be confused. My dad is a woman and we WERE confused about that for a long time. When I started making this film I made a decision which was that I would make this film the way I wanted to make it. And I have to be honest, what people on social media would be angry about was not difficult in that context. What was difficult was that I have an actual family who also experienced this and who have their own experience of it, and I had to decide that whatever feelings they would have about me making this film could not dictate how I made the film. Because if I didn’t set myself free of that I would never be able to write anything. That’s how it has to be. Any artistic expression is ruthless like that, and that is hard to deal with.
What has been the audience reception to your film? I was very moved by the movie as it reminded me of my own childhood, as there was a close relative of mine who transitioned from male to female, and I grew up in the 90s so I saw a lot of myself reflecting in the character of Emma.
Malou: Thank you for sharing that. A lot of people say that they recognise their own family in the characters and that what they go through mirrors a change that they’ve experienced in their own family. That makes me super happy. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. That people would watch the film and maybe think ‘ah what this family is going through is not that different from something I know’. I also really wanted it to be accessible and easy to watch so I’m very happy when people say that they found it funny. I just won an award for the film at a kids film festival, the jury were 7th graders and they said ‘it wasn’t boring at all’ – that made me very happy. I didn’t make it as a kids film but I was hoping that grown ups would watch it with their kids. So it’s pretty cool that kids like it even without being dragged to the cinema by their parents.
“I want to make my own films and my perspective on the world is connected to my experience of growing up as a girl and now a woman in a male dominated world.”
What has been the response from your family? How has your father reacted to the film?
Malou: They all dealt with it in their own way, I think for everyone it would be a sense of loss if control and it was for them too. But when they finally watched the film they were all very happy with it and proud of me for making it. My dad was also involved in PR here in Denmark for the release and I had no idea whether she would be up for that. But she was and it was quite beautiful to experience that with her and to see that people were interested in her story and that she was ready to be open about it. There was a lot of silence back in the 90s when she transitioned, people didn’t know how to talk about this, so they would just be quiet and silence is worse than anything. Now we as a society are developing a language to talk about this and it’s really interesting to see what’s happening. In order to do PR together me and my dad watched the film, just the two of us in the cinema, and it was very emotional for both of us, we both laughed and cried and it was amazing to see her response to the film. The first thing she said afterwards was that she was amazed with Mikkels performance and his sensitivity in understanding and portraying the journey of the character.
Do you have any favourite female film directors whose work you admire?
Malou: I think all female directors are super cool – it’s such a tough industry and it is still very male dominated so just getting a film made is impressive. I have a 1-year-old daughter and suddenly I’m like ‘that’s why there are so few women in this industry’… It’s not easy that for sure. I’m lucky I live in Denmark where it’s actually possible to unite work life and family life. I think in many places it’s an either/or. That said I really admire Jane Campion, I think she’s very strong in making films in her own way and her own voice, and it’s not just about the stories, it’s also about the process I think. I also really admire Jill Soloway. I hadn’t seen Transparent before I was well into writing ‘A Perfectly Normal Family’ but it was really awesome to see that she was also making something about this subject in a light-hearted yet truthful way. I think in general I just love seeing when people use themselves as their strength.
“There was a lot of silence back in the 90s when she transitioned, people didn’t know how to talk about this, so they would just be quiet and silence is worse than anything. Now we as a society are developing a language to talk about this and it’s really interesting to see what’s happening“
Lastly, what advice would you give to any aspiring female directors out there?
Malou: I guess I’m repeating myself, but find a way to make yourself your biggest strength. It sounds simple but it’s not. I don’t mean that everyone has to go out and make a film about their childhood but I think it’s really important to be true to oneself, in the stories we tell and in the way we work. I used to be so annoyed when I was in my twenties making short films and someone would call me a ‘female’ director and think why can’t I just be a director. No one says Christopher Nolan is a male director… But again it’s to do with the context we tell stories in. The stereotype of a film director is still a man.
So, I learned to appreciate being a ‘female’ director, because I am and I’m really happy with that and I really don’t want to make Christopher Nolan’s films. I want to make my own films and my perspective on the world is connected to my experience of growing up as a girl and now a woman in a male dominated world. Instead of feeling like I’m worth less because I have a less known perspective on life, I use it to my advantage. But again – not easy – and my experience is that it’s all the little things, it’s not a big heroic war, it’s all the small battles all the time, and they seem small and pointless that you can think ‘ah it doesn’t matter, I’ll live it’ but that’s where the sacrificing starts and then it goes wrong. Fight the small battles so you can be truthful to yourself is my advice!