Belgian film “Girl”, which was selected as the official submission of Belgium to Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, often made me nervous for good reasons. As calmly and closely looking into the ongoing daily struggle of its transgender adolescent heroine, the movie often feels tense and unnerving for the growing emotional turmoil beneath its mild, mundane atmosphere, and then it strikes us hard with a number of understated but powerful moments to remember.
During the early part of the film, we gradually get to know Lara (Victor Polster), a teenage transgender girl who has been preparing for her gender reassignment surgery. Because she has to wait for a while as going through a rather long process of hormone treatment and psychiatric evaluation as required, she cannot help but feel frustrated and agitated even though she is mostly treated well by her doctors, and even the considerable emotional support from her supportive single father and her little brother does not seem to help her much.
Lara is instructed to keep herself fit and healthy enough for her gender reassignment surgery, and she has no problem with that, but there is one complication. She is recently allowed to be trained at some prestigious ballet academy, but she must readjust her body in many physical aspects, and that certainly demands a lot from her right from the very start. For catching up with other female students in the ballet academy, she has to practice many basic ballet movements a lot during the additional training sessions with her generous ballet teacher, and some of you may wince whenever the movie shows how much demanding this process is to her poor feet, which frequently have to endure many strenuous ballet movements.
And she keeps feeling not so right about her body as before. Any of female students in her high school does not mind Lara using the same bathroom with them, and those young girls in the ballet academy let Lara having a shower with them, but her male body parts constantly remind her that she is still a boy. She tries to cover up her male genitalia as much as possible, but that still does not make her comfortable at all, while also subsequently causing the possibility of jeopardizing the preparation process for her gender reassignment surgery.
As Lara becomes more frustrated and troubled than before, the movie slowly and subtly dials up its level of tension on the screen, and there are several calm but emotionally intense moments which are difficult to watch at times. While she and her father come to conflict with each other due to the growing emotional gap between them, she also comes to clash hard with her little brother over a small private matter, and she keeps herself getting pushed further and further at the ballet academy in the meantime. As the camera fluidly follows her every ballet movement, we cannot help but become unnerved as sensing more of her pain and agony, and, not so surprisingly, there eventually comes a moment when she comes to face her physical/psychological limit.
What happens next later in the story as well as several other uncomfortable moments in the film have understandably drawn lots of criticism, and I must tell you that I often found myself questioning the intentions of director/co-writer Lucas Dhont during my viewing. As adamantly focusing on Lara’s face and body, the movie sometimes seems to objectify her from the distance instead of emphasizing with her, and I am still wondering whether the story, which was inspired by the life experience of a real-life transgender ballerina, should really be driven to its logical extreme around its finale (That real-life transgender ballerina in question approved the movie, and she later attended its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in last year).
Anyway, the movie is still worthwhile to watch for several good reasons. Never allowing his movie to slip away from its frighteningly dry realism, Dhont steadily and skillfully captures whatever is churning behind his heroine’s seemingly serene façade, and Victor Polster, a non-professional male performer who happened to be selected after the unsuccessful gender-blind audition of around 500 candidates, is unforgettable in his extraordinary performance which won him the Un Certain Regard Jury Award for Best Performance at the Cannes Film Festival. While looking convincing as required during those numerous ballet practice scenes in the film, Polster did a commendable job of conveying to us his character’s deepening emotional struggle without any false move, and that is why we are shocked but not so surprised when his character decides to do something quite drastic in the end.
In case of a few other main performers surrounding Polster in the film, they are also effective in their natural acting. As Lara’s caring father, Arieh Worthalter is excellent when his character lets out his concern and frustration during one of his key scenes with Polster, and young performer Olivar Bodart holds his own small place well as Lara’s little brother, who turns out to have his own emotional issue to deal with.
In conclusion, “Girl”, which won the Caméra d’Or award for best first feature film as well as the Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival, is definitely not an easy movie to watch at all, and I can see why it is disliked by some audiences and critics, but I still appreciate how it handles its sensitive subject with considerable intimacy and verisimilitude. As a matter of fact, I am glad to see that its controversial side has been leading to more talks and discussions on the proper representation of transgender movie characters, and I sincerely hope that there will be other good movies willing to show and tell us more about transgender people out there.