'Girls Lost' ('Pojkarna'): TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall and Wilma Holmen in 'Girls Lost'
An original take on adolescent desire and gender identity.

Three Swedish teenage girls at the bottom of the high school social hierarchy learn what it's like to walk tall as boys in this fairytale about sexual awakening.

Swedish writer-director Alexandra-Therese Keining's captivating Girls Lost is a teen body-swap scenario with a supernatural twist that navigates a skillful path through humor and revenge fantasy to touch on tender issues of gender identity and sexual confusion. Based on a prize-winning YA novel by Jessica Schiefauer, the film doesn't quite sustain its initially intoxicating momentum all the way through. But its depiction of bullied 14-year-old female outcasts getting a new spring in their step as they take a walk on the wild side of masculinity has an irresistible pull that helps counter any storytelling bumps.

The opening sequence shows main character Kim (Tuva Jagell) being pursued through the woods while a moody John Carpenter-esque electronic score pounds away. It ends up being not at all that kind of movie, and yet the horror setup isn't entirely misleading. There are hints of it also in the luscious dark tones and moody nightscapes of Ragna Jorming's cinematography.

Given that they don't fit the conventional mold of the popular girls at school, the daily lives of Kim and her best friends Momo (Louise Nyvall) and Bella (Wilma Holmen) are hell. They endure the vicious verbal and physical abuse of a nasty gang led by towering blond alpha male Jesper (Filip Vester). Their teachers stand by and let it happen, telling them to toughen up. The girls idly wonder if their lives would be easier if they were boys.

That daydream becomes a reality when Bella, who carries on her recently deceased mother's horticultural hobby, gets a weird plant seed with a gardening order. In an other-worldly development right out of Little Shop of Horrors, a whirl of molecular activity makes the plant grow overnight in Bella's backyard greenhouse into a funereally beautiful black flower circled by butterflies. The sweet aroma of vanilla proves too great a temptation and the girls drink the plant's nectar, causing them to sleep and reawaken in the unfamiliar bodies of boys.

The film's casting is terrific, with Emrik Ohlander, Alexander Gustavsson and Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund all making convincing male counterparts for Kim, Momo and Bella, respectively. The discovery of their transformation (nicely realized by the effects department in gently morphing visuals) is played at first for low-key comedy. And while an American film would likely be coy about the physical specifics, these girls are surprised and delighted by their new penises.

Kim is especially taken with her strange new form, having confessed earlier to Momo that she sometimes feels she has a zipper somewhere that's concealing her true self underneath. Her bedroom is plastered with androgynous idols like Grace Jones, Patti Smith and David Bowie. Even her punked-out Barbies look gender neutral.

The transformation lasts only until they next drift off to sleep, and the girls make a pact to repeat the experience only if they all do it together. Even after they switch back to their original bodies, however, they carry themselves to school with new swagger and without fear, giving Kim the pluck to put Jesper in his place.

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When their male incarnations fall in with young petty thief Tony (Mandus Berg) and his friends, they enjoy the heady rush of playing soccer, smoking and drinking beer. But Momo and Bella soon get turned off by all the tough-guy behavior, while Kim is drawn to it. He starts spending solo time with Tony, helping out on robberies, as sexual tension hangs in the air between them. Momo and Bella view Kim's growing distance as a betrayal of the bonds of their three musketeers-style allegiance.

Each time its nectar is drained, the magical flower appears closer to perishing, but Kim gets more and more dependent on the fix. She finds the transition back to being a girl rougher and more distressing after each invigorating experience of being a boy. An awkward romantic triangle also forms, as Momo struggles with ways to express her feelings for Kim, unsure whether to declare her love in female or male form.

Keining brings a mostly assured touch to material that can veer at times into teen melodrama. There's a welcome lightness particularly in the early scenes, which have some of the exhilarating giddiness, as well as the raw feeling, of another Swedish movie about female adolescence, Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! Some of that energy deflates as the gender and sexual politics become more knotty amid the turmoil of puberty. There are also slight plotting issues in the outcome. For all its fantastical-allegorical elements, the story is grounded in reality, so despite the marginalized role of adults — Kim's concerned mother (Anette Naas), Bella's depressed, widowed dad (Olle Wirenhed) — the freedoms seemingly granted these 14-year-olds raise unanswered questions.

But the appealing cast and the director's compassionate insights into her characters' difficult time of life make it easy to get past the weaknesses. Girls Lost also scores simply by virtue of being an original, imaginative take on the rocky evolution of a transgender teen.

The focus on Kim's discovery of a vital core that he had previously been afraid to explore generates real poignancy in the symbiotic performances of Jagell and Ohlander. But there are also troubling signs of isolation, aggression, volatility, moral conflicts and loss of control that show the process to be far from uncomplicated. How refreshing to see a body-swap situation played not for laughs but as an intimate consideration of gender fluidity that brings the hope of liberating self-knowledge, albeit still shadowed at the end here in dark ambiguity.

Cast: Tuva Jagell, Emrik Ohlander, Louise Nyvall, Alexander Gustavsson, Wilma Holmen, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, Mandus Berg, Filip Vester, Adam Dahlgren, Josefin Nelden, Anette Naas, Olle Wirenhed
Production companies: GotaFilm, in association with Periferia Productions, Film I Vast, Sveriges Television
Director-screenwriter: Alexandra-Therese Keining, based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer
Producers: Helena Wirenhed, Olle Wirenhed
Executive producer: Christer Nilson
Director of photography: Ragna Jorming
Production designer: Kaisa Makinen
Costume designer: Sara Pertmann
Music: Sophia Ersson
Editor: Malin Lindstrom
Casting: Maggie Widstrand
Sales: The Yellow Affair

No rating, 106 minutes

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