Girl (Cert 15)

1 Disc DVD (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 101 minutes approx.

Transgender identity and surrounding issues are difficult to portray in film for fear of accusations from the LGBT community of inaccurate representations of the characters. Lukas Dhont’s Girl, based on the real life story of Belgium trans dancer Nora Monsecour, is a powerful work that doesn’t escape such censure.

Monsecour is represented in Girl by Lara (Victor Polster), a 15 year-old trans girl with a desire to become a ballerina and is in the process of transitioning. Lara has the support of her father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and younger brother Milo (Olivar Bodart) as they move closer to the hospital for the transitioning surgery and the prestigious dance school Lara wishes to attend.

Plot wise, that is the basic gist, but it’s an eminently sufficient foundation for Dhont to build on in showing us Lara’s daily life, the emotional and physical changes of the transitioning process with the usual vagaries of puberty. Lara’s ballet aspirations are a metaphor of this struggle, the physical differences of her male body impeding progress in certain areas required for performing.   

With one brief exception of shameful humiliation, Lara is not portrayed as seeking pity – in what is a change for a film of this nature, the tone is in fact very positive, avoiding the standard transphobia trope. This might usually help ingratiate trans characters to the audience, but Dhont has found a more direct way that doesn’t involve deliberately galvanising or stirring the emotions in this manner.

By doing this, Dhont covers this subject with sensitivity and empathy, at least to the eyes of this cisgender viewer although many in the trans community don’t agree, being forthright with their complaints. I guess this is a case of being in someone’s shoes to understand their position, yet Monsecour herself was a consultant as where other trans people, so there must be something that is accurate.

One complaint is the depiction of gender dysphoria in Lara that eventually leads to a shocking act of self-harm in the final act, which has been deemed exploitative. As I cannot speak with any authority on this I would view this as Dhont raising awareness of this genuine psychological condition, but the real issue is more with the constant focus on Lara’s crotch, a motif that is frankly a little overplayed.

Playing Devil’s Advocate on this point, it is interesting (for wanting a better term) to see the lengths Lara goes to in disguising her male form by taping up her manhood and avoiding showers at the dance school, both incurring a different sort of stress for her. Maybe once was enough but Dhont does feature it too often in establishing it as part of Lara’s daily routine which does feel a little voyeuristic.

In fact, we only see Lara’s male genital in full in just one shot late in the film – even the humiliation scene at a party where the other girls, having previously showed no interest in Lara’s state, demand to see her genitals avoids showing anything, though this doesn’t make it any harder to watch. This would be the cruellest episode for Lara as a character otherwise the general mood is one of acceptance and tolerance.

And maybe this where people need to focus on with Girl – what Dhont gets right in it rather than what there is to object to. Lara is a real person, that is the first thing we take from this film. There is no affectation, stereotype, or ambiguity to her character or personality, she is a girl and is treated and accepted as such by her family and her peers at the school.  

Doctors and specialists on hand to help with the transitioning are very supportive of her, and a potentially awkward moment at the new school where as teacher asks if any girl’s have an issue sharing a locker room with Lara passes without incident. The only time it becomes an issue is with Lara’s progress as a dancer, her large male feet being a major handicap for moving in tight made for women ballet shoes.

Referring back to how this is metaphoric, the further into the hormone treatment Lara goes the more the dancing becomes a struggle; in one scene she goes all out of kilter after repeated pirouettes and starts to break down, beautifully conveying the imbalance and discordance of her altered hormonal structure. This wouldn’t have worked as well had this been an overwrought, dramatic meltdown.

Similarly, a tense father-and-daughter chat that sees temper flares because Lara doesn’t know how to open up is oddly poignant, following Lara’s sexual near miss with a boy, tortured by not knowing what her sexual preferences actually are. The subtext to this scene is Lara not having a mother to confide in regarding intimate and sensitive topics but Mathias is keen to know and understand how his daughter is feeling.

The film’s best asset is its most controversial aspect, the casting of cisgender male Victor Polster as Lara. Dhont auditioned actors regardless of gender but 14 year-old Polster got it for his superior dancing abilities. His performance is nothing short of astounding, rich in nuance, empathy, and aching effectiveness in conveying every complex emotion Lara experiences, not to mention the physical commitment in both the dancing and the body transformation.

I can neither condone nor condemn Dhont’s choice of casting, but the results are far too impressive to dismiss them. The important thing is how Polster’s performance affects the audience and their perception of the transgender community, especially those who aren’t what might describe as the target demographic.

Personally I feel enlightened and have better understanding about these issues having watched Girl, a film that should be applauded for its fresh, positive approach. I don’t know if another film of such relevance and importance will be released this year but it’s a shame Girl will fall under the radar for not being in the English language. Powerful and provocative for the right reasons.

 

Extras:

5.1 Dolby Surround

2.0 Stereo LPCM

English Subtitles

English Subtitles for Hard of Hearing

Audio Description for Visually Impaired

Interview with Director Lukas Dhont

Trailer

 

Rating – **** 

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