Thursday 1 October 2020

The second mother: "A Perfectly Normal Family"

Whatever your position on the 21st century's bestselling author of children's literature, the needle looks to have shifted. I've spent the best part of the past month marvelling at the fact that ITV4 - home of The Sweeney reruns and blokesports - were running those trans-centric Starbucks adverts (flagrant corporate appropriations of identity politics, yes, but also oddly moving markers of a moment, unthinkable on free-to-air TV even a decade ago) in the middle of the channel's Tour de France and World Series of Darts coverage; even more surprising (and encouraging) is the fact that, unlike Alesha Dixon's jewellery choices, these ads have met with no backlash to speak of. Last week, the French doc Little Girl offered a matter-of-fact survey of the life of a trans kid; this week sees the release of the Danish drama A Perfectly Normal Family - a title that would have served Little Girl almost as well - with its PG-rated take on the plot and themes of Amazon's groundbreaking series Transparent. (Like that show, the film has drawn criticism for casting a cis male in the lead role.) Making the change here is family man Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, a lookalike for the young Lars von Trier), announcing in the first reel that he wants to live a new life as Agnete. It's a decision that distances this former patriarch from a sometime wife, whose response is to file for divorce, and the couple's children, teenage Caroline (Rigmor Ranthe) and especially football-loving youngest Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt), obliged to process the fact a) their parents are divorcing and b) their dad is now another mum. Trust the Danes to drag the spectre of Mrs. Doubtfire out of the closet: what we're watching is the standard family unit that's provided the bedrock for a century's worth of family movies being broken down and reconstructed along new, progressive lines.

In charting this family's progress from astonishment and anger to acceptance, Malou Reymann's film is never less than reassuringly Scandinavian: all warm sunlight, nice houses and open minds. It's rare to encounter a movie where you sense there was both a counsellor and a child psychologist on standby behind the camera to nudge these actors in the right direction should they come looking for guidance. Reymann is very astute about Emma's desire to keep Agnete at arm's length, watching as this suddenly sullen kid wraps a towel around her face to block out the sight of the new woman in her life, and comes to insist Agnete doesn't publicly refer to herself as her mother. It's recognisable as the cringing embarrassment most tweens feel around their folks, only exacerbated by the confusion and resentment Emma feels about the paradigm shift visited upon her at a formative moment. This is not a film that takes any great formal or narrative risks, the better to cushion its life lessons. Reymann subtly locates the action in the early Noughties (around the time her own family was undergoing a similar transformation), which cues passing references to Britney Spears and John Toshack, but surprisingly little evidence of transphobia beyond a grandad's befuddled deadnaming at a family get-together; her boldest choice is to sporadically insert home video footage of Agnete in her Thomas days, which - as in Transparent's opening credits - serves as a relic of ostensibly simpler times. The editorial aim is to show the mixed-up Emma feeling her way through a complicated situation, and thereby allow anyone in a similar position to rest easy, knowing these things can be worked out for the best. You could teach A Perfectly Normal Family in classrooms - and I suspect it'll find a ready audience in that (seemingly swelling) demographic of young parents who'd rather their offspring were schooled in anything but Harry Potter.

A Perfectly Normal Family opens at Manchester's HOME and Sheffield's Showroom, and will be available to stream, from tomorrow.

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