As I said in my review of The Wild Boys, some films come with an in-built plot-spoiler.
In the case of Girl, while the brochure blurb gave away the transgender theme, the first scenes had something of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando about them. That opening sentence that says ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex…’ rang through my mind as I pondered over which gender was transitioning to which.
There was plenty of doubt, and the slow and subtle exposition was handled with great poise. Lara – I’ll withhold the actor’s name for now – is a determined youngster who longs to become a ballet dancer. Or, to gender the issue, Lara longs to become a ballerina. Unfortunately, she has not received the early training necessary to prepare her physically.
Yet despite being told she is unlikely ever to dance professionally, she is made a probationer at a leading national ballet school, and works hard to achieve a fully-fledged position. But her feet tell the truth as she strains to bang a square peg into a round hole. This truth becomes a metaphor for the other gruelling process which Lara has embarked upon: the transition from the gender she was assigned at birth to that with which she identifies.
Each of these journeys is fraught with emotional and physical tension. Lara’s teachers fully encourage her, although within the mentioned metaphor, one tells her she can’t just lop bits off her feet.
The medical professionals say, ‘Try not to fixate on your looks’ – although that’s exactly what ballet forces a person to do. To be self-conscious in such an environment would be a challenge to a cis-gendered teenager, let alone a young person with added body dysphoria.
Lara’s class colleagues seem to accept her… that is, until she steps into an understudy role and petty envy takes its toll with devastating results. The ballet corps is a brutal place at the best of times, but give teenagers an excuse to decimate the competition: they’ll take it.
Despite the professional help of medics, the encouragement of the teachers, and the almost overpowering love of her father (tenderly played by Arieh Worthalter), Lara is caught in a maelstrom of amplified emotions.
While fully supported by her Father and adored by her little brother, Milo (Oliver Bodart) it is six year-old Milo who first shows signs of struggling to come to terms with this transition. During a squabble the petulant boy ‘deadnames’ Lara by addressing her as “Victor.” It is a heart-wrenching scene, with director Lukas Dhont wringing every ounce of emotion and meaning from the young actors.
But Lara seems a pretty feisty youngster, prone to a spot of adolescent rebellion. At the start of the film, after numbing them with ice, she pierces her own earlobes – to the incredulity of her father. But when the ice returns at the film’s brutal (if fictitious) climax, the audience squirms as she takes other matters into her own hands.
I went to a screening of Girl at the Filmhouse introduced by members of the EIFF Young Programmers group. It was interesting to see how the young hosts related to the portrayal of adolescent pain and introspection, while the older generation, I suspect, empathised with how the father struggled because he tried so hard to understand what Lara was feeling.
Another perspective was given by guest speaker, Sophie Rebecca, a trans-woman and a dancer, who had direct involvement with the film, based on a real person known to her, Nora Monsecour, also a trans-female dancer. One key question, mentioned in the Filmhouse brochure, was to do with the media criticism of casting a cis-gender male in the central role.
Besides giving her insights on some of the thornier issues of the transition process (“things that aren’t spoken about hormone therapy”) and the grim statistics of the high suicide rate in the trans community, Sophie Rebecca put the narky criticism into perspective.
While it’s true to say that it would be good to have more trans roles played by trans actors, there were considerable limitations when casting the part of Lara. They needed an actor who could dance – really dance – as there were no body-doubles used, lots of close-ups, and with so many mirrors in the rehearsal rooms there was nowhere to hide.
This itself was a metaphor, since for a pre-op trans ballet dancer, hiding oneself is almost impossible. But most important was the information from Ghent University Hospital, who advised the film makers not to cast a transitioning teenager as it would present them with extra difficulties during what is – as actor Viktor Polster so vividly portrayed – a time of immense emotional and physical turmoil.
Girl is an important film that will hopefully inspire young trans people to aspire to find (as Sophie Rebecca put it) their ‘soul-wings.’ It is essential viewing for anyone who struggles with the concepts of gender fluidity, transgenderism, and the transition process. But it is also a beautiful portrayal of family life where the tribulations of teenage-hood are – as is so often the case – put to the test. Ultimately, it’s a film that shows how love conquers all.
For more on the Filmhouse programme click here.