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Lara is 15 going on 16 trans girl with dreams of being a professional ballerina in Lukas Dhont’s touching and humane first feature Girl. She’s far behind the other girls, having started much later than them. Her point work, turns and pliés all need improvement. She’s given an eight-week probation period to see if she can improve enough to be admitted for the full year.
Simultaneously, Lara has been taking puberty inhibitors to prevent her genitals and hormones from growing as that of a teenage boy in preparation for surgery. The colliding of these two worlds act as a superb metaphor to create a powerful story. There’s also something so specific to having this take place in the world of ballet. To the world, ballerinas are (or have been) considered the pinnacle of feminity. There’s nothing Lara wants more than to be a girl. She’s tall and lanky but graceful and beautiful and bears a striking resemblance to a young Jessica Chastain. Lara is played by professional dancer Victor Polster in his film debut. It’s one of the festival’s best and biggest breakout performances. He is a stunner.
One of the more remarkable things about Lara’s life is the unconditional and unquestioned support of her family and friends, most especially her father Mathias (an excellent Arieh Worthalter), the best movie dad since Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name. He is committed to his daughter’s transition and is so supportive Lara begins to become annoyed at the constant ‘How are you? Are you ok?’ questions from him. Oh, what a problem for any teenager to have. Her rascally 6-year old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) is one of her biggest cheerleaders but in one scene, upset and refusing to get dressed for school, he lashes out and calls Lara ‘Victor,’ her boy name. Visibly upset, Milo hugs Lara and promises not to use that name again. It’s a teachable and not preachable moment of sympathy and empathy.
Although Lara is open at school, she still refuses to shower with the other girls. Her breasts haven’t developed yet and she still has her male genitals. This might seem like a preoccupation of genitalia over emotional gender identity, and with a lesser director, it would be. But Dhont and his brilliant star approach it with humanity and realism. Lara is uncomfortable with her current genitals and the film is very frank about showing that. It’s that frankness that helps tie in Lara internal struggles so completely. In the film’s only display of teenage cruelty, the same girls demand Lara show them her penis. “You’ve seen us naked, we should get to see you,” they say. Lara eventually relents after humiliation and once it happens the girls don’t give it another thought.
Much might be made of Dhont’s decision to cast a cisgender male in the lead role (films with Eddie Redmayne and Matt Bomer playing trans have been met with some backlash) but this might be a unique case. Not simply because Polster is so astonishingly good in a completely intuitive performance but the subject of ballet is one of such committed strength and skill and years of training that Polster, a professional dancer, was probably the best choice. The dance sequences focus almost solely on Lara with few cutaways to other dancers. This gives the film and its subject an authenticity (one element of it) that is hard to fake.
But, as most teenagers are, Lara becomes impatient quickly (she pierces her own ears rather than waiting for permission earlier in the film). She ups her own dosage of hormones to quicken the pace in order to grow breasts. Her stress, both with the transition period (up to two years before surgery can be performed) and with her dancing, reaches a breaking point.
The ending of the film is a painful one (well, the penultimate scene) but really shows that even with a strong circle of support that the inner anguish of what it means to be young and trans can still be a struggle of unknown complexity.
The film played in the Un Certain Regard section (but should have been in the main competition) and is eligible for the festival’s Camera d’Or prize (for best first film) and the Queer Palm (for films by or about LGBTQ stories), the only film playing with that distinction. With Chile’s trans drama A Fantastic Woman having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year, the doors are opening – ever so slowly (Lara would hate that) – to give us more nuanced, and simply just more, stories of the trans community that we need. Girl is the next in what is hopefully many more.