It was no surprise to see Sebastian Lelio’s affecting and engrossing transgender drama, A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantastica) from Chile land a slot as one of the five nominees for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film last week, and it just might be the favorite to win. Certainly it would be a deserving choice as the film not only breaks major ground with trans actress Daniela Vega in the title role but works as an intriguing piece of cinema all on its own.

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Vega plays Marina, a young waitress who is involved with an older gentleman, Orlando (Francesco Reyes). We see him watching her sing onstage,  then on a romantic outing and later at home — where he collapses in bed and dies suddenly. This turn of events leads to big trouble for Marina, who is revealed to be transgender. Soon she is ostracized, even to the point of being shunned from attending his service, and being questioned by detectives in the matter of  his death. After all, how did all those bruises get on his body?

His grown children, the ex-wife, the detective and the doctors all seem to resent Marina for who she is. One scene is devastating when she is forced to take a medical exam simply to humiliate her. Not everyone is against Marina — she has an understanding boss and sister to name two — but the deck is stacked, and Lelio is showing how difficult life can be for someone in her position. The movie explores the lack of empathy for one another, while at the same time operates on many levels including as a suspense thriller, a character-driven piece, a musical (there’s a even great dance number) and finally a story of love, grief and loss.

It is a very human film in so many ways, marked by a lead performance from Vega that is moving and completely natural. It was important for Lelio to cast a trans actress, and Vega initially was just acting as a consultant as he developed the film. Soon the director realized she was the only one to play Marina, despite limited acting experience. It is a performance of grace and dignity, and not quickly forgotten.

Lelio manages his screenplay’s ever-changing tones expertly, even when the film at times seems to be taking on more genres than it can handle. Fortunately it never falters and is highly deserving of its Oscar nom. The script, written with Gonzalo Maza, won a prize when the film debuted at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases it Friday. Check out my video review by clicking the link above.

Do you plan to see A Fantastic Woman? Let us know what you think.