It's sort of unfortunate and backward, that the thing that makes A Fantstic Woman truly stand out is its lead is a transgender character played by -- gasp! -- an actual trans actor.
To be clear, I don't subscribe to the idea that non-trans actors playing trans characters is inherently wrong. It's an age-old debate also often had by people in the disability community: should every disabled character be mandated to be played by an actor with whatever disability the character has? My argument has always been that this is the very nature of acting itself: playing the part of something you are not. It's all make-believe, right? (There's always a line, of course, and something like blackface crosses it.) The flip side of this argument is that people who are trans or disabled -- or gay people or people of color -- should be cast more often in parts that are for anyone, not expressly written for whatever characteristic by which they are most defined by the outside world.
That said, much like the superb Tangerine (2015), A Fantastic Woman is indeed a trans story, and having a trans actor play the part certainly gives it a fresh authenticity. This doesn't have quite the unique vision of Tangerine, which was unlike any other movie ever made (in more ways than one), but Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal certainly gives it a unique perspective.
There is also a certain fascination in seeing a story like this told from the point of view of another culture, here specifically Chile. A lot of people treat Marina terribly, and a lot of it is pretty typical of trans stories: harassment, being called a "faggot," humiliating treatment from local law enforcement even when they are insisting they are there to help. It's tempting to complain about A Fantastic Woman from this perspective, but for two things: first, these things in reality remain all too common; and second, who am I to judge this as a reflection of a slice of Chilean culture? I don't live there.
Marina's story is indeed a sad one, though, which, while not nearly as tragic as it could be (Boys Don't Cry this is not, thank God), can get pretty heavy. At the beginning of the story, Marina is happily coupled with a man much older than she is. But one night she wakes up to find him having an attack of some sort, and not long after she rushes him to the hospital, she dies there. A Fantastic Woman is the story of how Marina deals with this blindsiding event while the man's family treats her terribly. One particularly searing line, when Marina is getting kicked out of the funeral she has been explicitly told not to come to: "Have you no respect for other people's pain?" As though Marina's own pain, which is easily just as intense as anyone else's, if not more so, is meaningless, a notion to be discarded along with her humanity.
While Marina endures emotional traumas one after another (starting at the very hospital she rushes to, where she is misgendered by police and asked to produce an ID that has not yet been changed), she moves through this story as a paragon of resilience and strength -- and without contrivance. She occasionally makes ill-advised choices, but never fatal ones, and stays a course that runs between resolve and defiance. Even in the midst of a life turned upside down by a random, tragic event, of all the people in this movie, Marina emerges as the hero.
Perhaps to add something adjacent to levity, director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio sprinkles in occasional stylistic flourishes: Marina walking against massive guts of wind; the occasional visions of her beloved Francisco. There's even a night club dance number, which sounds out of place in a story like this, but Lelio integrates it seamlessly. A lot of these diversions are cut into the movie's trailer, which makes it seem a bit more stylized than it actually is; most of it is much more straightforward. But using such flourishes sparingly only helps it.
If anything makes A Fantastic Woman worth seeing, however, it's Daniela Vega, quietly intense in the title role. She makes choices one might call brave, and offers a kind of representation never seen onscreen, with a frank and realistic portrayal of daily living as a trans woman. She exists here just as a regular person, after all -- she's just a waitress, not a sex worker, much as the police might assume her to be. She led a normal life until unfortunate circumstances befell her and ignited the small mindedness of those around her, and this is a film that depicts how it's the rest of society, not her, that is in urgent need of an attitude adjustment.