'Little Girl' ('Petite fille'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

PETITE FILLE - Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of Agat Films & Cie, Arte France, Final Cut for Real
Little girl, big documentary.

French documentary maestro Sebastien Lifshitz's latest looks at a young child who has to fight hard to be accepted as a girl.

French filmmaker Sebastien Lifshitz has made three fiction films, Come Undone, Wild Side and Going South (the latter with current Bond girl Lea Seydoux). But the majority of his output has been in the documentary genre, often exploring marginalized and queer experiences in France, though last year's Adolescents was a welcome broadening of his horizons as it depicted the life of two teenagers from France over several years (think a nonfiction Boyhood with girls).

As Lifshitz has honed his nonfiction skills in features ranging from The Crossing (2001) to The Invisibles (2012) and now the Berlinale Panorama title Little Girl, it is striking to note that he has become a documentarian of such skill and confidence that his films feel increasingly light on their feet while at the same time gaining in depth and emotional resonance. As in the work of all master documentarians, the filmmaking technique seems to have melted away so that only the protagonists and their stories are left. In Bambi from 2013, Lifshitz portrayed former dancer and Parisian nightlife icon Marie-Pierre Pruvot, who was assigned male gender at birth, as she looked back on her life. In his latest film, he returns to transsexual and gender dysphoria issues but instead of someone looking back, the protagonist in question is Sasha, a young girl from rural Northeastern France with her whole life still ahead of her.

Following its premiere in Berlin, Little Girl should appeal to broadcasters looking for an easily accessible, charming yet heartbreaking work on an issue still misunderstood by many members of the general public. It will hold fewer surprises for LGBTQ and enlightened — trying really hard to avoid the dreaded "w"-word here — millennial audiences, though their hearts, too, will be warmed by Sasha’s story.

“When I grow up, I’ll be a girl,” Sasha started telling her working-class parents when she was barely 3 years old. When she turned 4, her mother Karine told her that that dream wasn’t within the realm of possibilities and Sasha’s ideas about her future were utterly destroyed. She was so devastated that her mom had a hard time consoling her. Karine tells the story in an early interview segment, at her own kitchen table, and she still is visibly distraught by having hurt her child so badly, even if it was largely unintentional.

Sasha is now 7, and her mother and father show an open-mindedness to a very complex situation that’s exemplary and inspiring. Dad, who’s less of a talker and who isn’t all that present in the film, simply says: “It’s not a question of ‘tolerating,’ it’s Sasha and that’s it.” Mom also clearly champions Sasha’s right to determine her own gender and her journey is shown in more detail, even if the exact timeline, between observational moments and interview footage, is a little hazy in places. In a moving detail early on, Karine says: “Sasha feels like, no, is a girl,” correcting herself mid-sentence. This is followed by Karine’s visit to her local doctor, who is a bit clueless about gender dysphoria but who is smart enough to know that there are specialized doctors who can help the family make sense of things.  

The specialists in Paris are indeed of great help, as they can answer pressing questions from both Karine and Sasha, like the fact that Karine wanted a daughter when she was pregnant has had zero bearing on Sasha’s situation and she thus can let go of her sense of guilt. The family is also provided with an official medical letter for Sasha’s school, where the principal and others have a hard time accepting her as a girl, something that’s also happening in her ballet class. 

Lifshitz never demonizes those that don’t understand or oppose Sasha’s desire to be who she really is and they remain almost entirely offscreen. Instead, the director chronicles, with immense warmth and generosity, the toll this outside opposition takes on Sasha and her loved ones and how much love, care and attention is needed to compensate for the fact she’s not simply accepted like all her peers. In one particularly moving scene, Karine quietly sobs her way through a list of normal childhood things that Sasha can’t really have because people around her won’t accept she’s a girl, from the pencil case and school backpack of her dreams to the outfit she’d love to wear on the first day of the new school year. It is revealed that she has never invited anyone from school into her bedroom, because she’s afraid it might reveal too much about who she really is; since the film opens there, Lifshitz clearly gained the little girl’s trust early on.

After some time — again, it’s not exactly clear how much time — Sasha has managed to make some friends at her provincial primary school, and it turns out that they have no problems at all with accepting her for who she is. Karine very wisely and matter-of-factly asks whether it’s too much to ask that adults do the same? 

Lifshitz’s cinematographer, Paul Guilhaume, who also shot Adolescents and his 2016 doc The Lives of Therese, has opted for a gorgeous widescreen ratio, allowing Sasha to be the cinematic hero of her own narrative. Almost all of the observational footage is, if not directly from Sasha’s point of view, at least from her eye level, putting audiences very close to her and her outlook on the world. (Some material was shot by the great Celine Bozon.) Pauline Gaillard’s editing is nearly invisible, beautifully constructing a family’s rocky journey to a better future (Sasha’s siblings co-star and they too, suggest, that kids make little fuss about something that some adults find so difficult to understand).  

For children, external markers of identity can be important and there’s a fascinating leitmotif that involves Sasha’s wardrobe. In the protective cocoon of her own home, Sasha initially wears dresses and colors such as pink and gold to affirm her identity as a girl. There’s a telling moment when mother and daughter go through Sasha’s wardrobe and the latter gets rid of practically anything that’s not just for boys but that could be identified as gender-neutral. “Girls can wear blue, too, you know!” her mother says (in fact, it’s the color we see Karine in most often). But as Sasha eases into her identity and is accepted by those around her, all those pinks and frills become less important. Toward the end of this moving documentary, she might be lying on her pink bed, but she’s wearing all blue, finally herself. 

Production companies: Agat & Cie Films, Arte France, Final Cut for Real
Director: Sebastien Lifshitz
Producer: Muriel Meynard 
Cinematography: Paul Guilhaume
Editing: Pauline Gaillard
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)

Sales: MK2 Films

In French
85 minutes