My instinct is to say that this queer coming-of-age film is nothing revolutionary; however, it seems that ー even in 2021 ー a film aimed at teenagers that revolves around trans joy is in fact just that.
Alice Júnior (Gil Baroni, 2019) tells the story of its title character, a vibrant 17-year-old trans girl who’s worried about getting her first kiss. Living in a fancy apartment in a high-rise building in Recife, she starts the film with a big group of friends and a large and supportive Internet following in this bustling coastal city. However, the film’s journey begins when she and her father are relocated many hours away by his work to the small conservative town of Araucárias do Sul. After incidents of cyberbullying at her new Catholic school (where kids and teachers alike are not so holy after all), she no longer has an online refuge to escape to. Can she reclaim a place in her new life? And, crucially, will she get her first kiss?
I won’t tell you explicitly how, but the answers to those questions shouldn’t surprise you. Yet, although trans joy is the sought for focus of the narrative, the road there is far from smooth.
Let me start by saying that Alice does have a few solid people in her corner.
Okay yes, her mother is dead (the mother is always dead in these films), but her father is the perfect ally and they have a very supportive relationship. She is surprisingly open with him, featuring his typically daddish interruptions in her YouTube videos (even though she tells him she’ll cut them out) and confiding in him about boys she’s interested in. He even brings a lawyer to school (via videolink) when he finds out the school is not letting Alice use the girl’s bathroom. All in all, he’s the parent every trans kid wishes for and deserves.
At school, too, she finds people who will support her, her history teacher being the first (of course it’s the history teacher!) When Alice turns up to her first day at school in head-to-toe pastels and glitter ー “I’ll draw attention no matter what so I might as well have fun”, she tells her dad ー she is forced by the school principal to put on a boy’s uniform before her first class. Rather than calling out her deadname on the register like all the other teachers do, her history teacher waits until the end of the class and asks her what her name is. Such a simple effort provides a lot of comfort for Alice.
Biggest Gay Mood: Wearing purple iridescent eye-shadow on your first day at Catholic school
Alice, like many queer teenagers today, also finds a lot of her solace online: she is still able to connect with her old friends in Recife.
Insight Into the Teen Mind
As a Millenial, the inclusion of social media into teen movies still feels novel to me; yet, logically, I know it should be expected in a film made in 2019. In Alice Júnior, it is the aesthetic of social media that feels special and uniquely teenage.
Alice records vlog-style videos in the film. As a viewer we see the editing upfront, and the style of editing feels specifically Gen Z YouTuber: repeated slow-mo sections in black and white, the inclusion of bloopers, and ーcruciallyー the use of GIFs. A woman (who I’ve been unable to identify from the credits) appears as GIF reactions whenever Alice is recording, acting as a kind of trans fairy godmother. We don’t know whether Alice has any trans friends in Recife, so the only connection we see her having with her wider community is through a screen. Here, she also finds a connection to her community’s history ー perhaps another reason why she seems so comfortable in her identity in one of the most dangerous places in the world to be trans.
Enhanced stylisation extends beyond Alice’s screen and onto ours. Neon lines and sketches regularly appear as if drawn over the scene, giving the narrative a diarised feeling. These sketches are placed in at many different moments: lines of motion on an exciting motorbike ride; highlights and stars on Alice’s hair as she flicks it around to boost her confidence; hotness ratings for boys she passes in the corridor when she enters her new school.
More broadly and simply, the colouring on screen is darker in sad scenes and brighter in happy ones. At one particularly sad moment after a bout of cyberbullying, Alice is sitting in the car with her father and crying. The shot frames her tearful face on one side of the frame, and a colourful rainbow pony toy hanging in the car on the other, juxtaposing the bright with the dark.
Altogether, it feels like we are watching a film through a teenager’s eyes: reactions are more extreme, and emotions are heightened and ever-changing.
The speed at which Alice’s new schoolmates jump at the opportunity to pick on her (when she is forced by the principal to wear a boy’s uniform and therefore outed) is indicative of the social dynamic of teenagers: they are typically quick to judge, and so Alice soon becomes a target. The bullying she receives is gut-wrenching at times: unable to use the gendered bathrooms at school due to social pressure from the girls, she ends up wetting herself during an exam. Someone catches it on film and posts it, tainting her online haven. Traumatic? Yes. Realistic? Also yes.
Top Tip: Though Alice Júnior tends towards optimism, be prepared for some light / moderate trauma: misgendering, deadnaming and bullying do all sneak their way in.
Ironically, it is this incident which brings friends some of her new friends closer as they come to check on her. She soon finds her people in a group of other outsiders, making friends with Viviane (the nerd), Taisa (the emo), Bruno (the black kid) and Lino (the gay kid).
Through these friendships, we also get some education on what not to say to a trans person: in one instance, Bruno tells her he didn’t know she was trans, and she quickly lets him know that that is not the compliment he thinks it is.
If Anne Celestino’s portrayal of Alice feels authentic then it’s largely because it is. I will admit that I had avoided some films with trans narratives that I had heard were problematic in their portrayal ー often focusing on pain, extreme trauma and even mutilation ー because I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable. It should go without saying that all of those trans characters were played by cis people. Alice Júnior may include darker moments, but it focuses on the pursuit of joy and happiness. Trans actor Anne Celestino is radiant in her lead role, emitting an energy, a power, a confidence through the screen.
Check out Netflix original documentary Disclosure for a reminder on why trans actors should play trans characters
Alice Júnior has all the marks of a classic coming-of-age teen narrative: a specified and finite structure ー the time Alice spends in Araucárias do Sul; the transformative journey of an outsider ー Alice’s descent and then rise in popularity; and an innocent romantic end-goal ー a first kiss.
Britney Line Time: “Keep a secret me and you / And seal it with a kiss”
I want to end by reminding you how I started this review: on the surface, the film appears to be nothing revolutionary. And yet, in pitting a typical coming-of-age narrative against an authentic-feeling trans experience, in chronicling the pursuit of trans joy, Alice Júnior is pioneering in reappropriating a genre for the trans youth of today.
Alice Júnior is available to watch on Netflix now in most territories, including UK, US and Canada.