Premiered Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes and already selected as Belgium’s entry into the Best Foreign Film race at next year’s Oscars, Girl is clearly being groomed for big things and more cynical folk than I could even accuse it of being foreign Oscar Bait. Lukas Dhont’s debut feature (playing at this particular Festival in the appropriate First Feature Competition category) follows 16-year-old Lara (Victor Polster), who lives with her single father (Arieh Worthalter) and 6-year-old brother, at a very difficult time in her life.
Lara and her family have just moved across Belgium in order for her to attend one of the country’s most prestigious dance academies, and she’s also preparing for the long gruelling process of finally being able to transition her body into that of a woman’s. At the moment, she’s unashamedly out to everybody, that part of her identity is never in question and her doting father is trying his best to be her rock throughout the process, but the fact that her body is still that of a man’s is taking a heavy psychological toll on her whilst her ballet training is taking a heavy physical toll on her body too, potentially putting her operation in jeopardy.
Thankfully, Dhont’s crack at this kind of material gets a leg up on recent mainstream British and American attempts to tell the tales of trans-dysphoria, like The Danish Girl or elements of Dallas Buyer’s Club, by mostly going for a smaller, less-crowdpleasing, and emotionally heavier take on the material. Similarly to how Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post tackled the effects of gay conversion camps, Dhont and co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens focus more on microaggressions and the everyday trivialities that remind a pre-op trans-person of the purgatory they are currently caught in. Teachers being innocently insensitive over changing rooms, the anxiety of a sexual experience (or inability to be sexual), a group of women trying their best to push someone into opening up more and hitting raw nerves in doing so (or turning entitled when refused).
Dhont and Tijssens also do a sterling job of immersing the viewer into that miasma of feeling comfortable in one’s identity but constantly stressed and angry at their biological state. The mood is thick and weighing even whilst Girl goes to great lengths to demonstrate the support system Lara has in place, because it can be impossible for pre-op trans-folk such as her to communicate their self-loathing in a way that others can understand even if those in that support network are receptive like Lara’s are. Relative newcomer Victor Polster delivers an instant-breakout performance, embodying Lara’s insular withdrawn maelstrom completely without ever making her a pitying one-dimensional tragedy figure, even during the rare times the script goes big.
But, and this is a big “but,” all of this praise does come with one major qualifier: Girl doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s a fact which can get lost when watching films at a festival, where you basically are sealed in a bubble for however long it lasts, but it is important to bear in mind when assessing a film like Girl. Because though it may play as part of a prestigious festival and it may indeed be really good and genuinely affecting, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s yet another transgender story made by cis writers, directors, and actors focussed on the act and angst of transitioning that are designed to have cis audiences go “oh, poor thing.”
And no matter how sensitively it’s portrayed (and it mostly is) or how strong that central performance is (and it is really strong), this is a topic that has been done to overkill and holds back trans-storytelling in the medium of Film through the simple fact that it’s the only way this story is ever being told. That trans-focussed stories can only be about woe or some form of tragedy based around that specific facet of their identity instead of one’s whole personality.
I’ll leave it to those much better versed in Queer Film Theory and with more experience in these areas to explain this issue in more detail (here’s a good start). But the fact remains that, especially after the ending, Girl falls quite neatly into the same traps that have claimed films like The Danish Girl and Boys Don’t Cry in the past and I have to knock the film for that, affecting though it may be.