Unlike most transgender-focused films, there’s little external conflict on screen in the Golden Globe-nominated “Girl.” The threat of hate-driven violence doesn’t hover like an approaching storm, and there’s none of the familial resistance that audiences expect in similar movies. Instead, most of the narrative struggle is contained within its protagonist, though there is additional friction between the Belgian drama’s noble intentions and its actual execution.
At 15, Lara (cis male actor Victor Polster) is desperate to both become a ballet dancer and be accepted as a girl, despite being born in a boy’s body. For the former desire, she attends a ballet school, performing arabesques and cabrioles alongside the other students, taping her bruised, bleeding toes as she attempts to make up for a late start dancing en pointe.
For the latter goal, she has been taking puberty blockers and is excited to start hormone therapy, painfully eager for the body that awaits her on the other side. In the meantime, she tapes her genitals again and again, anxious for the day when she will have gender affirmation surgery.
There’s little of the fear and hatred that pervade previous films about transgender people like “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lara’s father (Arieh Worthalter) is extraordinarily supportive, and though there are a few incidents at the ballet school — including one that feels unwarranted — most of the struggle in the drama is within Lara.
Her war is fought on two fronts, with a body that neither is nor does what she wants. As a transgender girl, Lara battles her male physical qualities, while she is also unhappy with her ballet performance. Her daily removal of the tape on her genitals mirrors her unwrapping her bloodied feet after she takes off her pointe shoes. Both moments elicit a gasp at her pain, but Lara sees each as a necessary step in becoming who she wants to be.
The script from director Lukas Dhont and his co-writer Angelo Tijssens tries to be sensitive in its treatment of Lara, but these efforts are belied by both the film’s visuals and its climax. Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography lingers over Lara’s body, obsessing over what she tries to hide. We don’t just see an isolated full-frontal shot or a single scene of tape removal. Instead, Dhont and Van den Eeden repeat these moments throughout the film, focusing not on Lara’s facial expressions and her feelings but instead directing the audience to her body. It feels exploitative, rather than empathetic. But it’s the irresponsible handling of the film’s final, shocking scenes that is the most problematic.
Though “Girl” premiered to acclaim and awards at Cannes, backlash has mounted in the months since the festival, particularly from trans voices in the film community. While it was inspired by the experiences of real-life dancer Nora Monsecour, who had some input into its creation, the film was largely made by cis men and stars a cis boy, leaving little room for a much-needed trans perspective in the final product. Ultimately, Dhont’s film is a strong debut from a technical angle, but it lacks the humanity necessary for a story of this nature.
“I don’t want to be an example,” Lara laments. “I just want to be a girl.” Similarly, Dhont’s drama shouldn’t be taken as exemplifying the experiences of all trans women, but on-screen representation is still scarce for this group, which adds weight to every moment.
In French and Flemish with English subtitles
Rated: R, for some sexual content, graphic nudity and brief disturbing content.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 28, Laemmle Glendale