TIFF Review: A Good Man is an empathetic and understanding look into the life of a trans man wanting to have a child

When news of the latest project by writer/director Marie-Castille Mention-Scharr was announced, this reviewer was intrigued yet quite trepidacious [sic]. The premise of the story itself is inspiring but the casting of the titular role can be seen as quite problematic. The major reason for being is because of the lack of proper representation for trans people.

Ultimately, cisgender actress Noemie Merlant was cast as the lead, Benjamin; whom is a frequent collaborator of Mention-Scharr and while this is no detriment to her talent as a performer, it is understandable that some will take her casting to be an issue due to the fact that a cisgender is playing a role of a trans person who is transitioning.

That being said, the story itself (which is based on true events) does paves the way of good intentions in terms of providing a spotlight on particular dilemmas trans people go through. Backed up with the talented duo of Mention-Scharr and Merlant and a talented supporting cast including Soko and Vincent Dedienne, will A Good Man succeed in providing said spotlight as well as a well-told story in the process?

Merlant and Soko star as Benjamin and Aude, a sweet and loving couple (a nurse and a dance teacher) whom have been together for six years. The two wishes to become a family and live a normal life by proposing to have a child but there are issues that hold them back from doing so. Benjamin is in the middle of a transition in becoming a trans man (legitimately on paper) and his family (including his brother Antoine and her mother Eva, played by Dedienne and Anne Loiret) and friends show varying levels of tolerance of his sexual orientation while Aude is known to be barren and cannot have children.

Knowing how much they want to have children, Benjamin comes up with a plan and proposes to get pregnant which comes with new challenges that brings forth past predicaments that will affect the two mentally, physically and psychologically; including Aude who begins to question how the pregnancy will affect her after worrying more about Benjamin.

A Good Man was co-written by Christian Sonderegger, who directed a documentary called Coby; which followed the journey of the titular man going through his transition to become a man. That documentary (in which Mention-Scharr also produced) essentially provided the genesis of A Good Man and armed with that prior knowledge, it is fitting and thankfully rewarding to know that the two filmmakers deliver an emotionally rousing drama that meshes enough verisimilitude on its own subject matter.

Mention-Scharr and Sonderegger lays down various issues into the narrative deftly without going didactic nor melodramatic. Scenes where characters (who are conservative) are confronting and frank, but they never become laughable i.e when Benjamin’s brother hears of his decision to procreate or when Benjamin’s mother states how she feels about his transition. There is a discussion between Benjamin and Aude and the latter mentions that she had a dream where she saw Benjamin with a penis and the filmmakers treat this as matter-of-factly as possible. The film shows that gender transitioning does not just involve the person going through the transitioning but the people around him/her as well and Mention-Scharr and Sonderegger do a good job of establishing said stakes.

There are also obstacles that revolve around gender identity within a societal scale that Mention-Scharr touches on i.e. birth certificates, social status, filial positions etc that provide the dramatic arcs that the characters go through much-needed punch. Even as something as simple as a scene where Benjamin buying groceries with a cheque and having to provide identification which provokes questions about his gender hit the mark.

The film also cuts back and forth (thanks to smooth editing from Benoit Quinon) from pre-transition and post-transition in Benjamin’s life and it lends the audience much-needed perspective in how he goes through the process psychologically as well as the origins of the romance between him and Aude. His prior identity known as Sarah, how he felt when he was in another person’s body and the effects on his behaviour when he starts taking testosterone help develop the characterizations and again provide the audience perspective without resorting to melodrama.

That is not to say that the film is a documentary in its approach when it does delve into some dramatic clichés (not a spoiler but a character gets into a car collision that many will see coming). But those are offset by wonderful performances from the cast. Dedienne and Loiret are good as the important family members in Benjamin’s life and their way of conveying their concerns is believable and striking; Soko is great as Aude, the proactive and supportive wife of Benjamin who begins to doubt her place in the relationship during the process of the pregnancy.

The standout however is Merlant, who not only has to be 100% on point with her performance but has to have full commitment from the filmmakers. Any flaw — whether it would be the make-up, her vocals or the dialogue stating the wrong facts — that comes up on the screen will fly back in her face. Fortunately, Merlant is more than up to the challenge in getting into the physicality of the role as well as delivering the frustrations and hopes of Benjamin with subtlety and conviction. In fact, it comes across as effortless to the point that you forget that he is Merlant. With this performance and her work in her last two films — Jumbo and Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Merlant has become a formidable actress.

Throw in a beautifully satisfying ending tied up with a singular final shot, A Good Man is a great effort from the collaboration of Mention-Scharr and Merlant. It may suffer from issues due to the fact that it could have done better in terms of representation and being a narrative feature (and all that it bears) but it nevertheless delivers as a heartfelt drama on shining on issues on being a trans man. Recommended.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

A Good Man is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s digital program. Head to tiff.net for more details.

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