The Confirmation


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Confirmation
"In a short space of time, Confirmation does a powerful job of exploring the competing needs of mother and son."

Knowing that this film has a transgender theme, some viewers will wince at the opening shot of lipstick being applied in front of a mirror - it's such a cliché. In this case, however the shot signals that director Marie-Louise Damgaard knows her stuff. The person applying the lipstick is not the trans character but his mother, Susanne (Ellen Hillingsø). The lipstick is bright red, like her dress with the glittering beads at the collar. She likes to be the centre of attention. But this is not her special day - it's his.

Damgaard plays similar tricks elsewhere, each of them adding a little something rather than creating a distraction. We see Susanne pulling together white satin across her son's back, but it's not a confirmation dress or a corset designed to push breasts up; it's a binder strapping them down so that young Matthias (Xean Peake) can look sharp in a suit. That this is necessary emerges as one of the sources of the deep anger and grief haunting Susanne, because if, as she goes on to note, they were in Norway, he could have had access to medicine to delay puberty. She doesn't spell out the difference this would have made. The audience is expected to understand or figure it out. Despite the passionate denunciation of Denmark's approach to trans people's health that she will make, the film is neither a lecture not a Trans 101. This is another sleight of hand. The bigger question is, should Susanne be speaking passionately at all?

Matthias wants to be respected as a boy. He also wants to be respected the way other teenagers are, making his own decisions about how to talk to people about his life, fighting his own battles, not being embarrassed by his mum. It's tough for him to put up with transphobia (without any actual repetition, Damgaard does a good job of getting across the fact that he's always being asked the same intrusive questions), but feeling that he needs to take responsibility for her emotional experience at the same time adds a further layer of stress. Peake's body language as he stands in line waiting to be addressed by the priest makes it clear that this is a big moment for him, an important step in his relationship with his faith and his journey into adulthood. He wants to be able to focus on that.

In a short space of time, Confirmation does a powerful job of exploring the competing needs of mother and son, recognising that both are going through something very difficult but that the experience has affected them in different ways. Susanne seems to find it difficult to distinguish between her desire to protect her child and her desire to take control of the situation on her own terms. She worries because Matthias doesn't have adult skills with which to handle it, but, in the process, fails to apply her own.

Hillingsø is extraordinary in the lead, Peake capable but subdued, intentionally presenting us with a weaker character who has limited recourse when at risk of being overwhelmed. In many ways the relationship they depict is simply a heightened version of that between most parents and then their teenage offspring - indeed, that's part of the point. Viewers will find it easy to recognise something of themselves in this situation. We root for them to figure it out, know that the arguments will probably resurface on and off for years, and remember our own family occasions with everyone officially celebrating but privately just trying to stay sane until it's over.

Everything congeals in one moment when another mother abdicates responsibility for her son's behaviour, saying "Boys will be boys." This isn't all about Susanne. but sometimes caring makes it harder to loved.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2019
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The day of a trans boy's Christian confirmation ceremony is stressful for him and his mother in different ways.

Director: Marie-Louise Damgaard

Writer: Marie-Louise Damgaard

Starring: Ellen Hillingsø, Xean Peake, Jesper Aron Kaplan, Justin Geertsen

Year: 2019

Runtime: 18 minutes

Country: Denmark


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