‘Something You Said Last Night’ is quietly subversive new trans cinema
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When we first meet Renatta, she is frantically searching for a vape cartridge. She will spend the rest of Luis De Filippis’ feature debut Something you said last night suck his vape as if it were an oxygen tank. It’s not a want, it’s a need. The only thing keeping her alive.
Renatta is not your usual trans protagonist. This may be because unlike the vast majority of people who have told and are telling our stories, Luis De Filippis is actually trans. De Filippis joined a small – but still growing! — list of trans people who have successfully brought the nuance of their experience to the writing and directing of a feature film. And the transited is only the beginning of what De Filippis brings to this distinct, sometimes delightfully understated story of family and arrested development.
The film is set during a week-long vacation that writer Renatta, in her twenties, takes with her family. There’s his mother Mona, a dominant personality, his father Guido, an awkward bastion of gentle masculinity, and his sister Sienna, a rebellious college student. Renatta’s brother, Anthony, is not on the trip, but his presence hovers throughout the film.
Much will be made of what the film is not. For example, this isn’t a movie about Renatta’s family learning to accept their transit – that acceptance has long been established. Nor is it a movie that deals with the trans trauma we usually see on screen, big and small. But if these absences are exciting, what exists in their place is even more exciting. These specifics are the true demonstration of what happens when talented trans filmmakers are trusted to tell their own stories.
Due to the impeccable casting and sharp writing, Renatta’s family feels like a real family. There are inside jokes that we don’t understand. The past hurt, we will never see it. Decades of history have only been conjured up by overreactions to the daily annoyances of beach vacations with people you know too well and love more than you love.
Carmen Madonia is stellar as Ren, charming and confident despite her not-so-teenage angst. Ramona Milano as Mona, Joe Parro as Guido, and Paige Evans as Sienna give equally specific and lived-in performances. These actors deserve praise, but so does casting director Marjorie Lecker, as well as De Filippis himself. “Great directing” has become synonymous with interesting directing, but when a cast is this good and has this much chemistry, it’s a sign of great directing.
By telling a story that takes place long after learning about trans acceptance, De Filippis made room for the small intimacies that exist within this Italian-American family. The gentle, loving way they touch each other even when they’ve just had a fight. Mona’s habit of calling her eldest daughter “Mom”. It’s all so real and compelling, and it allows the movie to work without the need for overly dramatic plot twists.
But it is not because the film does not speak of transness as we are used to seeing it that Renatta’s transness is not present. In one particularly clever scene, Renatta nonchalantly puts on a bikini without worrying about her bulge. Meanwhile, her sister is the one feeling insecure, throwing a large t-shirt over her own bathing suit. Later, when Renatta is ogled, she takes that same t-shirt and covers up. It’s not that Renatta doesn’t suffer from dysphoria or transphobia, it’s just shown as a variation of cis people’s insecurities and social pressures. The solution is the same great t-shirt.
There’s also an understanding that a parent insinuating you’re more difficult because of your transitory is painful enough, a man expressing interest only to be dismissive in front of his friends is painful enough. These everyday micro-aggressions that we’ve been taught to accept as “not so bad” are this film’s most dramatic take on transsexuality. Ultimately, Renatta’s problems aren’t all that different from other wayward 20-somethings. Of course, his transit may be a factor in his delayed maturity and difficulty staying employed, but that’s probably not the only cause. Renatta is stressed because she doesn’t know how she will pay her rent. Renatta is annoyed with her family because they are her family and it annoys her.
One of the wisest touches De Filippis brings to the film is having Renatta constantly buried in his phone. Not only is it realistic – who among us isn’t buried in our phones – but it grounds Renatta in a life we never see. We don’t know who she’s texting to, and that keeps her isolated with her family in this contained story. But it alludes to the world Renatta usually inhabits where even the love and acceptance we witness is overwhelmed. The possibility of having to go home haunts the film, and every time Renatta ignored her family to be on the phone, I imagined the trans friends on the other end. Sure, for many of us, that family portrait is enviable, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same family Renatta found with his friends.
Something you said last night not only insists that we should demand more from our cinema – it insists that we should demand more from our lives. Transit can change the specifics of our challenges, but it does not change our needs, our desires, our anxieties, our desires. It’s a movie for tough trans sisters who aren’t that tough. It’s a movie for every trans person with a vape and a dream.
Believe that we deserve more, and maybe we can get it. We shouldn’t settle for less.