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A 15-year-old transgender girl from Belgium starts training to become a ballerina in Girl, a film with a title that’s simultaneously straightforward and anything but. This intriguing debut feature from Flemish director Lukas Dhont, in a completely natural mix of Dutch and French, looks terrific, is not afraid to tackle a number of difficult subjects and features a star-making performance from acting and dancing talent Victor Polster. But the protagonist’s emotional journey remains a bit too interiorized in especially the film’s second half to fully explain an ending that will no doubt be one of the most talked about in Cannes this year. Girl bowed in the fest’s Un Certain Regard section and can look forward to a very healthy festival life, with a few commercial pickups likely, especially by niche distributors specifically catering to LGBT audiences, though the film shows enough cinematic mastery to merit a wider breakout.
Lara (Polster) has moved with her Francophone father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), and kid brother (Oliver Bodart) to a new city, where she can study at one of Belgium’s most famous dance academies. Simultaneously, she’s preparing for her transition, since she was born in the body of a boy. There are no Boys Don’t Cry-like situations here, as most of Lara’s entourage is supportive, from her dad and family to the doctors and people at her new Dutch-language school. What could have been a highly embarrassing moment, when a teacher asks Lara to close her eyes and the rest of the female students are asked to raise their hand to indicate whether they are cool with Lara being in their dressing room, is played in a refreshingly offhanded manner. The outcome is not lingered on, neither a drama nor some kind of triumph.
Indeed, except for an extremely humiliating scene in which Lara is basically reduced to her genitals by some of her female peers, the drama of Girl doesn’t come from any external sources or outside pressure. Instead, Lara’s battles are largely interior ones. There is the daily physical struggle, as she has to keep combating any signs that might make her look like a boy to others and to herself, and more generally the fight to try and keep up with the very strict physical training program that is required of any potential ballet star.
Dhont, whose shorts Headlong and L’infini were also both set in the dance world and had young protagonists, wrote his debut with Angelo Tijssens and they do a great job of setting up Lara’s struggles, frequently relying on body language, looks and visuals rather than dialogue. She looks radiant when she drops off her little brother at school and a teacher asks if she is the boy’s sister, for example. Dhont draws a silent comparison between the white tape Lara uses to flatten her crotch before putting on her skintight ballet outfit every day and the white tape all the girls use to try and keep their feet in their ballet slippers from becoming a bloody mess, with both painful crutches to obtain a desired image of perfection.
Between Lara and Dad Mathias, it’s the latter who finds it hard to swallow some of the risks of the upcoming operation, something Lara is only looking forward to. She’s also comforted by a kind and wise Flemish psychiatrist (Valentijn Dhaenens), who tries to avoid having Lara put off the rest of her life until after the operation, when her physique will finally match her gender identity. It’s important that she doesn’t forget to live now, he tells her, something that results in her finally trying to very awkwardly make a move on a cute boy who lives in the same apartment building.
A sense of quiet desperation starts to creep into the film’s second half, when the impatient Lara starts to suspect the hormones she’s been taking aren’t working. “You want to be a woman straight away,” her dad says, “but you are an adolescent, too,” echoing the advice of her psychiatrist. There’s a heart-to-heart between father and daughter in the kitchen that’s heartbreaking to watch, as all of Lara’s anxieties, frustrations and fears finally tumble out. It is clear from this conversation she’s not much of a talker, a character trait aggravated by the fact she’s also an adolescent on the brink of adulthood, an ambitious and demanding person career-wise and on top of that she’s struggling with very specific and complex gender and body issues and transformations.
But exactly because she has to deal with so many things at once, the film would have benefited from a few additional of these more explicit glimpses of what Lara is dealing with in her head, as the pic’s conclusion is so dramatic it needs a solid foundation for it to be dramatically effective and fully believable. That said, Dhont does find exactly the right tone for the ending, offering a complex balance between heartbreak and hope. And he does so using visuals and editing rather than dialogue, the mark of remarkable directorial instincts that are on display throughout and that makes one very excited about what he will do next.
One thing that perhaps a part of the transgender community will look at more closely is Dhont’s decision to cast a cisgender boy in the role, though it might be next to impossible to find a transgender actor to play a pre-op girl who is the right age and who can also act and is a trained ballet dancer. Another issue is the film’s approach to nudity, which is very frank and which could be perceived as reducing the transgender experience to a question of genitals rather than one of gender identity. That said, for this critic, it felt like a logical choice since the movie’s subject is so clearly about the inner psychological struggles of Lara’s bodily disconnect as well as the constant and very painful external physical struggles of becoming a highly trained dancer at such a young age.
The supporting cast is solid and Worthalter (Sympathy for the Devil) is exceptional as the father, but the film really belongs to Polster as the title character. His extensive background in dancing is fully exploited by Dhont and ace Dutch cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, who frequently concentrates on Polster’s impressively agile legwork and can then pan up to his face in one woozy, shallow-focus shot that occasionally borders on the impressionistic. The dance sequences also visually reinforce one of the work’s central metaphors, which is that adolescence, and more specifically finding yourself, is a very complex choreography or tightrope walk that requires equal measures of balance and grace but that these elements in turn might require a lot of preparation, hard work and perhaps even a drastic decision or two before you finally get it right.
Production companies: Menuet, Frakas Productions, Topkapi Films
Cast: Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Magali Elali, Alice de Broqueville
Director: Lukas Dhont
Screenwriters: Lukas Dhont, Angelo Tijssens
Producer: Dirk Impens
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Philippe Bertin
Costume designer: Catherine Van Bree
Editor: Alain Dessauvage
Music: Valentin Hadjadj
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: The Match Factory
In Dutch, French
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