Girl is a movie that despite its many controversies is confident and gripping for the majority of its run time. That is until its misjudged climax spoils a share of the goodwill it’s built.
Winning both the Camera d’Or and the Queer Palm at last year’s Cannes, the Belgian drama centres on Lara (Victor Polster) – a 15-year-old transgender girl aspiring to be a professional ballerina. To help with that pursuit, Lara’s single father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and her younger brother move cities so that she can attend a prestigious dance academy.
Undergoing hormone replacement therapy in preparation for sex reassignment surgery, Lara is frustrated by the slow progress of the treatment. All the while, her changing body is further strained by the physically demanding competitive ballet training.
Juxtaposing our main character’s transitioning with a Black Swan-esque drama makes sense. Based on the true experiences of a trans female dancer from Belgium, placing Lara into the very binary world of ballet is an effective way of exploring the issues transgender people face. In order to fit in with the cis gender women of her troupe, Lara tucks her penis with tape during ballet practices, eventually leading to a genital infection. She chooses not to shower with her troupe after long strenuous training sessions – which shot in muscular, tactile one-takes recall the recent Suspiria remake. This is because she fears she will be an outcast if people see her body.
Her anxieties feel warranted. From various teachers, classmates and even her young brother during an argument – Lara faces microaggressions over her transition. These grow more serious throughout the film, culminating in a very tense party scene where she is humiliated by her peers.
These moments feel queasily realistic, thanks to a smart script by debut director Lukas Dhont and his co-writer Angelo Tijssens. Through minor astute details they capture the complexities of these situations such as the moment where the main bully’s posse move from gleefully cheering on to becoming uncomfortable with the hazing. The writers also never take the spotlight away from Lara. The focus is always on her as Polster manages to convey so much emotion with only minimal dialogue.
Girl has been criticised by the trans community for various issues. One of these is the decision of Dhont’s to have repeated shots of Lara’s crotch throughout the film, as we see her tucking her penis. The fact that both the director, his co-writer and Polster are cis-gender has led many to accuse the drama of being voyeuristic, with one critic dubbing it ‘trauma porn’. While it’s true that Dhont lingers too long on our teenage protagonist’s genitalia (maybe just one or two scenes would be enough), this cis-gender writer found that the shots were important to the story being told.
Perhaps, I would have taken greater issue with these scenes if I felt the film wasn’t empathetic to Lara, viewing her as mere curiosity. As it stands though, the viewer really roots for the main character. We want her to succeed. Dhont’s intimate camera work brings us into her world. So much so that when something unfortunate happens to Lara, it hits the viewer like a ton of bricks.
Credit should go to Girl for its portrayal of Lara’s father. A beautiful sub-plot, Matthias is a supportive dad who really believes in his daughter’s ballet skills and wants her to be happy. If the latter means sex reassignment, so be it. That said, the widower is still worried about Lara, that the treatment will have unfortunate side effects and that it combined with the ballet training is too much for her.
We also get a sense of him wanting to understand what his child is going through but struggling with Lara’s penchant for internalising emotions – perhaps out of fear as to what is happening to her in class. All in all, it is a delicate portrayal brought to life by live-wire scenes between Polster and Worthalter.
Despite all this though, Girl’s denouement leaves a bad taste. Without spoiling, the ending feels like it would work better in a Cronenbergian heightened horror. In a film about a transgender person – of which there are very few – it feels at best like a misstep, at worst borderline offensive, especially given how the shockingly violent act is presented as having a positive effect.
As it stands, Girl is a mixed bag. It feels like a step in the right direction for trans representation in that it effectively puts the viewer into the headspace of someone transitioning. However, its more sensational moments will reignite an important debate on who has the authority to tell certain stories.