Starring: Victor Polster, Arieh Worthelter, Oliver Bodart, Tijman Goevarts
Director: Lukas Dhont
Everything started so well for the new Belgian drama about a trans teenager, Girl. Selected un certain regard at Cannes, it won the Caméra d'Or for best first feature film and then the Queer Palm. With so many garlands attached to its name, it looked poised to head straight to the Oscars, just as A Fantastic Woman had the year before… that is until critics started to turn on it for its decidedly negative depiction of the trans experience. Warnings soon flooded social media, declaring this film “needlessly bloody” and “obsessed with anatomy”, which many felt was the wrong kind of film to be releasing worldwide in 2019. And then on Oscar nomination day, Girl’s name was conspicuously absent from the Best Foreign Language Film category. Now, the film has arrived on (very) limited release in the UK.
Lara (Polster) is a sixteen year old aspiring ballerina. She has been granted a place in one of the country’s top dance schools, but she knows that she has some catching up to do. Her classmates are aware that she’s trans and though seemingly unfazed by her presenting as a girl, their curiosity becomes more sinister as they try to understand her. Her father (Worthelter) couldn’t be more supportive, but as Lara does everything she can to try and fit in, she moves further and further away from the rules they had set around her transition.
A cis-gender actor was cast as Lara under the advice of doctors who advised that casting a trans-gender performer of that age would come at a very delicate time of their transition. Polster gives a tremendous performance, giving an intense stillness to Lara that masks her tumultuous feelings underneath. Aged fourteen at the time of shooting, there is quite a lot of full-frontal nudity – all shot with parental consent – which feels justified at times, but after a while begins to feel gratuitous.
Lara is increasingly obsessed with her genitals. Using duct tape to tuck daily so that she feels comfortable in her leotard, her hatred of her genitals is the crux of the latter part of the film. But if Lara is obsessed with what’s between her legs, director Dhont is too. He shows in explicit detail the reality of what Lara has to endure, but while depicting this is a valid part of gender dysphoria, its certainly not the only part. And at every opportunity, we see Lara’s body on full display, the lens showing her anatomy in sometimes extreme close-up. You can’t help but feel that even though the film does go some way to depict the psychological aspect of a transition, it cares far more for the physical side. At times, Lara feels little more than the sum of her genitals and breasts, which are yet to develop.
I can understand the frustration of the trans community, because this is not the film that manages to depict a sensitive account of a young person’s transition. This is bleak, bloody and uncomfortable. It serves well as social commentary and succeeds on that level, but just as A Fantastic Woman refused to let its protagonist simply be happy, neither does Girl. A film that succeeds much better in showing a sensitive character portrait of a young trans person is French Tomboy, but with its titular character having not yet hit puberty, the possibility of a physical transition does not register there. Girl has to find that balance because its character is older, but only partially succeeds in doing so. We also can’t forget that this is a Belgian film and subsequently this depiction of the trans experience may well be culturally accurate there.
The majority of Lara’s struggle is internal, but in a crux of uncomfortable scenes that depict how the world struggles to truly accept her for who she is, there are moments that you find yourself hiding behind your hands. Being made to close her eyes as her teacher takes a secret vote about whether the girls feel comfortable sharing a changing room with her is particularly humiliating, but not as much as being forced to expose her genitals by her peers at a sleepover because “you’ve seen all of us naked, so it’s only fair”. But apart from these – and similar – scenes, most of the narrative is driven by dialogue-free sequences, where the editing does most of the talking.
Most of this film’s criticism has come from declaring “what it isn’t” rather than “what it is”. “What it isn’t” is the profoundly positive transition narrative that is yet to be put on screen, but “what it is” is an effective character drama with strong performances and a bold directorial voice.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS, RELEASED BY CURZON.