Films about trans people made by cisgender directors tend to be intended as explainers. Even with their best intentions, they tend to medicalize trans identity, forcing it into a narrative about dysphoria, coming out, and surgical transition. But what about people who live confidently in a milieu where it’s fairly acceptable to be trans and queer?
“So Pretty,” directed by trans director Jessica Dunn Rovinelli, speaks for them, with a perspective coming within the community. Three of its central quintet of characters are trans, but it doesn’t call attention to that fact. “So Pretty” describes a search for communal living and real resistance against rising fascism with a style as radical as its politics.
“So Pretty” adapts Ronald M. Schernikau’s novel “so schon,” transplanting the action from ‘80s Berlin to present-day New York. (The film was completed two years ago.) Its characters read excerpts from the novel in a park, standing before a microphone. Tonia and her boyfriend Franz (Thomas Love) are working on a translation of the novel, but Schernikau’s work quickly bleeds into their everyday life. Reading the book and finding inspiration in it collapses into using it as a model for community. While the film has little narrative momentum, Tonia and Franz hang out with their friends Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie), Erika (Rachika Samarth) and Helmut (Phoebe De Grost) in their apartment, having sex in various pairings. At a protest at Trump Tower, Paul’s leg is injured by a cop and Erika is arrested, which adds pressure to their small cell.
“So Pretty” depicts sex frankly without exploitation. Its characters have little use for monogamy: in one scene, three people lie nude in bed. Rovinelli frames them in a long shot that exposes one man’s penis but avoids fetishizing any of the people or their body parts. They also embrace kink playfully. Scenes where trans people, preceding transition, look at their genitalia unhappily in their mirror and experience dysphoria are a cliché. “So Pretty” subtly refers to this trope and subverts it with a shot where Tonia and Franz’s happy cuddling is reflected in a mirror. As a rule, the film uses long shots to show the bodies of its cast while retaining some distance. It bares the actors without chopping their bodies into parts for the audience’s delectation.
Rovinelli’s first feature, “Empathy,” was a docu-fiction about a non-binary sex worker struggling with their addiction to heroin. (She also wrote music criticism for the now-defunct website Tiny Mixtapes.) Written together with its subject/actor, it strove to avoid the exploitation common in documentaries about marginalized people and function as a true collaborative vision.
“So Pretty” continues this quest to envision better possibilities for art and life. Simultaneously, it avoids easy topical references. Trump goes unmentioned, and the characters’ protest signs “femme as in f**k you” and “this art historian kills fascists” are vague enough to serve many situations. Rovinelli deliberately avoided using the words “trans” and “queer.”
The style of “So Pretty” does not rhyme with the warmth it depicts. Especially in its early scenes, the camera has a mind of its own, as interested in the apartment’s décor as the characters. In 360-degree pans, it floats past people as they converse and takes in the entire space. (A painting of Lenin, with a purple smudge of lipstick on his forehead, hangs on the wall.) Rovinelli pays close attention to objects as a material presence and an influence on people’s moods. The camera movements and preference for long shots over close-ups embrace the beauty of the apartment’s décor, which is soft and light. The film also lets events run in real time. When Tonia goes dancing at a club, the scene lasts the entire length of the EDM song playing. A similar scene near the end holds the camera back as a distant performer plays electronic music onstage amidst flashing blue lights.
“So Pretty” responds to American life’s oppressiveness with a hopeful vision of community. Like Ephraim Asili’s recent “The Inheritance,” about a collective of Black radicals in Philadelphia, “So Pretty” looks for solutions to the atomization of American individualism. Even if it reflects a certain amount of anger, its tone is fairly mellow and gentle. In its style, it strives for ways to avoid the received notions about trans people created by cisgender filmmakers. No character is singled out and turned into a protagonist on a quest, and its vision of queer life strives to incorporate BIPOC as full participants. At times, it seems overly dry, but its heart beats loud and fast underneath.
SO PRETTY | Directed by Jessica Dunn Rovinelli | Now streaming on ovid.tv