Director-writer Malou Reymann is perfectly aware that “normal” and “family” are mutually exclusive words — she was 11 when her father transitioned to being a woman, and it’s the memory of what she felt at the time that informs her sensitive and accessible debut, “A Perfectly Normal Family.” Told from the point of view of the younger of two sisters (though not strictly in a POV manner), the film refreshingly de-sensationalizes her father’s process from Thomas to Agnete, wiping away thoughts of the ludicrous “The Danish Girl” while treating father and daughter in an admirably evenhanded way. Though disturbingly unaware of her daughter’s inner turmoil, Emma’s father’s almost goofy geniality allows her to stay in the audience’s good graces even while sympathies strongly remain throughout with her younger child. Winner of Rotterdam’s VPRO Big Screen Award, which comes with a €30,000 prize as well as guaranteed Dutch distribution, “Family” should have no problem finding welcoming arms in the LGBTQ family of niche art houses worldwide.
Opening with re-created home movies is a nice touch, plunging us into the bosom of a classic nuclear family as Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) and Helle (Neel Rønholt) learn to be parents. While otherwise set in the 1990s, when tomboy Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt) is a preteen, the re-creations sporadically recur to reinforce the “normality” of those early years and the sense of both parents sharing equal duty in raising their two daughters. Perhaps the script tries too hard to slyly signal what’s ahead, with lines about winning isn’t everything and the importance of getting to know someone before passing judgment, but mostly the efficient dialogue aims for a straightforward approach.
Things move very quickly once Helle angrily announces she and Thomas are getting a divorce “because Dad wants to be a woman.” Older daughter Caroline (Rigmor Ranthe) is taking it all remarkably well (too well, actually — there’s no sense of process), but Emma’s world is shaken to the core, and Thomas, while good-natured, is blind to her distress. He ignores her insistence that he come to family therapy as her male father and turns up in snakeskin slacks and a pink, spangly cardigan, announcing she’s changed her name to Agnete. It’s all too much for Emma, who wraps her head in a scarf and refuses to even look at her father. The scene encapsulates the film at its best, mixing in the right amount of humor, extending empathy to all, yet centering on Emma as the protagonist, a role the novice actor Toft Loholt fills with affecting nuance.
Following Agnete’s return from abroad for her sex-change operation, her bond with Caroline becomes stronger than ever, the implication being that the girly teenager loves having a transsexual father to share womanly things like manicures and dressing up. Soccer-playing Emma is the opposite, mortified she’ll be tarred by her classmates as the child of a freak, but also just trying to understand how to think about a father who’s embraced life as a woman very, very quickly. It’s unclear whether Reymann means to make Agnete as self-centered as she comes off: Though warm and supportive, she never takes into consideration how Emma might feel, and while there’s something to be said for parents showing themselves as proud and unapologetic, at the same time Agnete’s inability to read her daughter’s distress adds a persistently troubling note. Følsgaard avoids the usual pitfalls of playing a transsexual woman, rejecting an artificial performance of femininity: He’s slightly awkward as a woman, but that works to his advantage, and when the family go to Mallorca on a vacation, fellow tourists believably assume that Agnete is simply a somewhat ungainly woman.
The conception of Helle’s character is also not entirely satisfying, as if the script isn’t quite sure what to do with her, possibly reasoning that since the story is meant to be told from Emma’s viewpoint, it’s OK to sideline her mom. A little more, however, would have rounded things out better, just as some indication of what she and Thomas/Agnete do for a living would have been helpful. Their apparent lack of any friends is also a weak point, but these all feel like first-film errors rather than major flaws. The meat of the story remains that of a personable young girl approaching all the usual difficulties of adolescence, suddenly forced to confront a monumental earthquake in her life without much support. On that level alone, “A Perfectly Normal Family” is an engagingly sincere picture of good people trying to negotiate barely charted territory to the best of their abilities.
Summer sunshine casts a warm glow over almost all scenes, underscoring the “perfect” part of normal and making the rupture in Emma’s cloudless life that much more jarring. Sverre Sørdal’s discreetly flexible camerawork ensures that Emma is almost always the focus of attention; even when shot from behind, we’re aware of her inner storms.