Girls Lost (Pojkarna)
Sweden (2015) Dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining
In cinema, the body swap concept has served as fertile ground for comedy over the years, getting tawdrier as censorship becomes more flexible but there is a serious side to changing gender which seldom gets explored – until now.
Three fourteen year-old schoolgirls Kim (Tuva Jagell), Momo (Louise Nyvall) and Bella (Wilma Holmén) are mercilessly teased by bullies at school for their unconventional looks. Keen botanist Bella plants an obscure seed that grows into a mystical plant, the nectar from which, when imbibed, temporarily turns them into boys (Emrik Ohlander, Alexander Gustavsson and Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund respectively).
Under their new male guises, they attain social acceptance for the first time. Kim finds herself attracted to bad boy Tony (Mandus Berg) and gets to know him as her male self which she finds more comfortable than being a girl, unlike Momo and Bella. Confused about her own gender Kim wonders if Tony’s reckless living is also a front as they grow closer.
Based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer, what sets Girls Lost apart from other body swap films is its relevance to gender confusion issue which is becoming increasingly noticeable in younger children. It doesn’t propose to offer any solutions but it does pose some interesting questions through Kim’s “try it before you buy it” experience.
The easily identifiable nerdish quality to the three pariahs that makes them easy targets – Kim’s short haired androgyny, Bella’s chubby build and glasses and Momo… actually she’s quite normal – suggest a raucous revenge comedy and not the profound emotional explosion that takes place in the second half of the film. Not that the beginning is fluffy and safe, the girls are called ugly “c” words in the first two minutes.
After Kim is humiliated on the sports field and Bella is almost stripped naked by lanky bully Jesper (Filip Vester) and cohorts, Kim openly wishes she were a boy so she wouldn’t be subject to such abhorrent treatment. Quiet where the seed for the magical plant came from or why it grew so fast is not explained but its unique appearance and vanilla aroma from its weeping buds enchants the girls.
This mystical fantasy plot device should be a tacky contrivance and certainly, it belies the dark tone of what is to come yet as a whimsical symbol of hope and comfort for the trio, we find ourselves buying into it since the girls have engendered our empathy. Dressing up for the occasion in black cloaks and painted masks, an almost occult like ceremony is held before the drinking of the nectar takes place, a gesture of their friendship.
Little do they know the effect it will have on them and it has to be said that physically the male alter egos are matched up rather well to their female opposites, albeit with short hair, or in Kim’s case slightly longer. The transformation scene is a delicate process handled via CGI but so utterly convincing as the shifts in the facial features are subtle. I’m sure the makers of The Incredible Hulk or Doctor Who would have killed to have such techniques available to them for their transformation sequences.
It’s interesting to note that this gender change is used to propagate the outdated notion of females being less adroit at sports, a deal breaker for Kim when she becomes the main beneficiary of this newfound physical prowess. As if to support this, the female sports teacher (Josefin Neldén) appears too afraid to discipline the boys for their bullying yet is quick to admonish the girls for reacting to it, telling them to suck it up.
The complexities of gender confusion is eloquently explained by Kim when she tells Momo that she feels she has a zipper inside her that, if pulled, will reveal the real her. As a male, Kim finds a world that is more open to her than as a girl, experiencing decadent highs in Tony’s company which pits a strain on her friendship with Momo and Bella.
Every melodrama needs a love triangle and the body swapping conceit creates a unique one that has no happy resolve – to wit: Kim likes Tony who may or may not be gay, but is she a girl who likes boys or a boy who likes boys? Then Momo kisses Kim as a boy but does she like male Kim or female Kim? Or both? Should Momo become a boy to appeal to Kim or stay as a girl? And will female Kim like female Momo?
Since uncertainty is a key theme of the story, Alexandra-Therese Keining doesn’t feel obliged to end on a resolute note since there are no easy answers, especially for Kim. But this doesn’t feel like an unfulfilling ending and the ambiguity of whether Kim finds what she is looking for is a hopeful destiny or a tragic one is poignant and provocative rather than necessarily downbeat.
Keining indulges the fantasy element of the tale by suffusing many scenes with a touch of whimsy in the shot composition, yet there is not holding back in depicting the unpleasant scenarios. A pivotal underwater scene is a sumptuously shot and lyrical in its execution but it is the transformations that provide the real visual magic – simple and subtle yet stunning.
The cast are all excellent in their roles, with the two Kims, Tuva Jagell and Emrik Ohlander, tasked with relaying the inner emotional conflicts of their oppose genders while keeping true to the character’s central personality. A huge undertaking for any actor and these two achieve this at such a young age in impressive fashion, supported by an equally keen and promising talent.
Arguably a bold subject matter to tackle with a fantasy approach Girls Lost pulls it off without appearing ignorant or mocking, offering a sympathetic and understanding shoulder of support for gender confused people whilst opening the eyes of the rest of us to their inner turmoil.