Knowing how to tackle some of life’s heaviest subjects is always difficult. In A Perfectly Normal Family, the team behind the story attempt to do so while telling the story from a pre-teen point of view, while trying to answer the question: how to react when one of your parents comes out as transgender?
The film opens on archival footage of the young family, Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) holding baby Emma, introducing her to her first TV football match. We then cut to Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt) as a pre-teen footballer, collected by Thomas after the game, his own little sports star.
Introduced to mum Helle (Neel Rønholt) and older sister Caroline (Rigmor Ranthe), they are a perfectly normal family. But, as we notice a strange tension between husband and wife, it’s revealed that they’re getting a divorce – because Thomas is transgender.
Skipping forward in time, the family attend an uncomfortable therapy session, Emma meeting Thomas as Agnete for the first time after six months of hormone therapy. Wrapping her head in a scarf, Emma refuses to look at her, until it’s just the two of them left in the room, sharing a sweet moment where she asks Agnete ‘will you always be my dad?’
After returning from Thailand for her surgery, Agnete takes the girls on a surprise trip to Mallorca. But tensions soon rise again as people around the resort refer to Agnete as the girls’ mum, and she doesn’t correct them. Emma is quietly furious, asking her to correct them when they get it wrong, and is only further angered when Agnete swims topless beside her in the sea, astonished she could be so open and carefree.
Back at home, Caroline celebrates her confirmation with her parents, family and friends. During the speeches, Agnete congratulates her daughter for becoming a fine young woman, and addresses the awkwardness she clearly feels radiating from some of the guests. Expecting this to backfire, we’re surprised when she makes her audience laugh and the evening continues on without further remark.
Things don’t go as smoothly with Emma’s teammates, though. Invited to a party, she overhears a group of attendees talking about her dad, making cruel references to her gender and the operations she would’ve endured to become her true self. Emma is hit by a wave of shame, grabbing the vodka bottle they’re drinking from and finishing it off, saved from alcohol poisoning by her coach and Agnete rushing her to hospital.
Directed by Malou Reymann, A Perfectly Normal Family is her debut as a feature-length film director, better known as an actress in the Netherlands. Co-written by Reymann alongside Maren Louise Käehne and Rune Schjøtt, it feels like a lot of love and heart has been poured into the story by everyone involved.
While Hollywood has received much (well-deserved) criticism over its portrayal of transgender people, typically using straight, cis-gendered actors in those roles, it’s hard to know where we stand watching Følsgaard as Agnete. However, whatever your thoughts are, it’s hard to deny that he performs beautifully, playing her with gentle grace, moving from scene to scene floating on her new air of confidence.
This is contrasted brilliantly by Loholt’s hard-shelled and angry Emma, quite rightly full of polarising emotions. As a young girl, she’s unsure how to process so much news at once, but it’s the moments where it’s just Emma and Agnete together that really touch us and show just how much love is still present, under the surface.
Set in the late 1990s, Reymann cuts the present-day timeline with flashback footage from a camcorder, showing the family at earlier, happier times. This gives us the chance to reflect on how Thomas must’ve been feeling as he watches his girls grow, but feeling as if he’s been born in the wrong body for so many years. It’s also an opportunity for us to reflect on how Agnete must feel as a transgender woman in 90s Denmark, knowing the stigma transgender people still face today, 20 years later. Although the story focuses on Emma’s experience of growing up and adapting to change, it feels like we could’ve seen more from Agnete’s point of view; everything we get from her character is very surface-level – a change of clothes, more make-up – and it would’ve been good to go deeper.
My only issue is the title – A Perfectly Normal Family. To me, it almost makes it sound like a comedy, when the story is anything but. From the start we’re faced with many heavy themes – gender, family, grief – but I feel as if it might be selling itself short. Or is it supposed to be a sarcastic quip on ‘a perfectly normal family’ – as in, their family now isn’t normal because of Agnete’s transition?
Whatever the choice behind the title, A Perfectly Normal Family is an enjoyable watch. A little shallow is its portrayal of its themes, but the cast are great and its heartwarming ending will make you smile.