In the last 20 years, American moviegoers have increasingly been introduced to feature films centered on transgender characters struggling with their gender identities. From real-life narratives like 1999’s drama Boys Don’t Cry and 2015’s The Danish Girl to original stories like the 2015 indie dramedy Tangerine, these stories are beginning to find their place in the cinematic landscape and slowly breaking away from the notion that they are films made only for LGBTQ audiences.
While auteurs like Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar have championed inclusivity by giving transgender characters a platform throughout his career, more foreign-born directors have started to recognize the deep emotional potential films like Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother), La mala educación (Bad Education) and La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) can have. Chilean co-writer/director Sebastián Lelio found this out when he won an Academy Award for his 2017 film, Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman), about a transgender woman grieving the death of her older boyfriend.
In Todos cambiamos (Everybody Changes), Panama’s official Best International Feature Film submission for the 92nd annual Academy Awards, filmmaker Arturo Montenegro (Donaire y Esplendor) tackles the issue in a respectful way, although most of it is surface-level drama. Like Lelio did in A Fantastic Woman when he cast transgender actress Daniela Vega in the lead role, Montenegro follows suit with Arantxa de Juan, a transgender actress who portrays a father exhausted to be living two separate lives.
Despite what seems to be a happy life, Federico is far from being at peace.
De Juan stars as Federico Ponce, a married businessperson with three kids living in Bambito, Panama. Despite what seems to be a happy life, Federico is far from being at peace. Only Federico and wife Carol (Gaby Gnazzo), know the truth. “I am physically a man, but I have the heart and mind of a woman,” Federico tells the doctor. Federico’s hope is that the doctor will help with the process of sex reassignment surgery so that Federico can officially be known as Lizzie.
Carol is not pleased with Federico’s decision. Although they have an agreement that Federico can dress as a woman when they go out together, Carol doesn’t want it to go any further than that.
“It’s one thing that you play dress up, put make-up on,” she tells Federico. “But it’s a very different thing that you start taking hormones.”
Nevertheless, Lizzie can’t fight her own natural inclinations. She is a woman and wants to be referred to as such. She’s tired of getting glares from people who wonder why she’s looking at women’s clothing at the store or why there is a man’s photo printed on her ID. She’s tired of getting pedicures only to have to remove the nail polish before she gets home, so her children don’t see.
It’s obvious early on in Everybody Changes that being transgender is viewed more adversely than it would be in other parts of the world. And it’s not just that Lizzie sees people whispering to each other about her appearance or the occasional snicker she hears from a passerby. In one scene, it’s her doctor who bullies her into believing her gender dysphoria is “not normal.”
“This is an aberration,” he tells her. “You’re going to hell.”
The film waxes philosophical instead of giving audiences a real sense of the impact Lizzie’s decisions have on them.
It’s a narrative decision Montenegro and first-time screenwriter Henry Corcuera make knowing how unfavorable public opinion on LGTBQ issues are in Panama. A 2017 survey showed that only 22% of Panamanians support same-sex marriage. When Lizzie finally reveals who she really is to her wife and kids, a scene that is entirely too heavy-handed to take seriously, she is quickly shunned and kicked out of the house. It’s an act that is supposed to represent the feelings of most citizens of Panama.
Everybody Changes might have its heart in the right place, but its script is sorely lacking in authenticity and sense of time. There is absolutely no growth from any of the secondary characters as Lizzie transitions. In one scene, Carol is disgusted at the idea of her spouse living as a woman, but in the next scene, she has miraculously come to terms with it. The film waxes philosophical instead of giving audiences a real sense of the impact Lizzie’s decisions have on them.
At one point in the film, when Lizzie’s oldest son, Mario, visits his mother’s psychiatrist, he talks about how he is a fan of foreign movies because he likes to “see the world from different perspectives.” If anything, Everybody Changes is a film that can serve that exact purpose. Despite it being the epitome of how not to handle something as sensitive as gender dysphoria, it’s also interesting to consider how other parts of the world might confront the same complex situation.