Girls Lost, 2015.
Directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining.
Starring Tuva Jagell, Emrik Ohlander, Louise Nyvall and Alexander Gustavsson,Wilma Homen and Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund.
Kim, Bella and Momo, three bullied teenage girls, are going through the throes of finding themselves. Surrounded by a dark world of teenage violence, marginalization and sexual confusion, the girls have only each other.
Set in the sleepy, rolling suburbs of an idyllic, almost utopian Swedish town, Girls Lost is almost clinical in its adherence to an indie aesthetic, which is fast becoming typical of Nordic-Scandinavian cinema. Directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining, whose previous work has explored aspects of gender, focusing particularly on femininity, Girls Lost follows three friends – Kim, Bella and Momo – who come across an enchanted flower, whose nectar allows them to transform from their dowdy female forms into teenaged boys. These transformations eventually cause a rift between the friends, and catalyses for one of them, Kim, the realisation of (or perhaps courage to pursue) her identity as a trans boy.
The themes at the core of the film were certainly something of a surprise to me, someone who went into this film without bothering to research it past its IMDB summary (shame on me). It wasn’t what I was expecting at all, considering that it was marketed, at least visually, as a quirky coming-of-age tale. The reality is much darker than that, but tentatively so, and the frictions between the characters of Girls Lost are almost exclusively and opaquely to do with gender and sexuality tensions. It’s surprising, yes, but not unpleasantly so. In fact, much of what Girls Lost does with its characters’ genders is a delicate and poised commentary on a disaffected youth, in a world which is only just beginning to open up to the possibility of non-binary genders being a real, live thing. It is an unexpectedly refreshing thing to see in cinema, perhaps a testament to the liberal socialist views of Sweden, which supposedly boasts among the best quality of life in the world. Its charm is otherworldly. It employs a vaguely eighties-informed synth soundtrack and dresses its characters in clothes from the late nineties. It trades on the nostalgia frenzy that is currently sweeping through film and television, but without any irony or self-absorption.
Its three central characters, played by Louise Nyvall (Momo), Tuval Jagell (Kim) and Wilma Holmen (Bella), are multifaceted, temperate and wholly original. Jagell, whose character Kim is takes the lead as she comes to terms with her trans identity, carries the film in her stoicness and her vulnerability. She is a force to be reckoned with, and a superb actor.
There are some points which are shoved across with all the nuance and softness of a blunt instrument. Metaphorical imagery is aplenty, with the flower from which the nectar comes oozing rather evocatively like a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Meanwhile, butterflies flutter everywhere, evoking metamorphosis and physical transformation (caterpillar to butterfly). As a boy, Kim is startled when a new friend, Tony (Mandus Berg) offers him a gun. Tony later turns out to be masking his own sexuality in order to save face, and the gun takes on a wholly new phallic symbolism. This kind of analogy permeates the film and at times comes across as a little obvious. Similarly, although Keinsberg can be afforded some creative license for her choice to include some elements of magical realism, there are times when scenes and plots points which could be made far more nuanced (especially considering the quiet, understated nature of the film), are instead forced down the throat. It does make one wonder what kind of schools they have in Sweden when girls are physically and sexually assaulted in broad daylight on school property, sometimes in the presence of teachers and nothing is done about it. Meanwhile, students enjoy drinking and smoking on school property after hours in full view of dog walkers and passers-by on the playing fields. Surely the police ought to be called. There is one rather cringeworthy scene where Momo, Bella, and Kim are blocked in the corridor by a bunch of older kids. The context of the scene is so overwhelmingly cliched that it almost ruins the more poignant moments of the film.
Besides all of this, Keining’s ultimate message is unclear. As a rule, she gives boys in general a bad rap, and while working hard to establish sympathy with some of the male characters like Tony in the first and second acts, she totally discredits him by having him finish the film as a rapist. As a boy, Kim is equally led astray, becoming an unpleasant hardened criminalesque version of his female counterpart. In fact, all of the boys in the film are irredeemable bullies who treat the girls like shit. Conversely, the girls are depicted as weak and vulnerable, incapable of defending themselves until they have experienced life as boys, when they begin to fight back. It’s a crude interpretation of radical feminism, and doesn’t realise its own internalised misogyny. The message, in its depiction of men as savage beasts and women as pathetic saps, is undeniably anti-feminist, which I suspect is not at all what Keining is going for. In terms of Kim’s gender identity, the answer is convoluted. Momo burns the flower in an attempt to halt Kim’s transformation, and Kim’s response is to take a gun and drive in to the woods. We are left with a prolonged shot of the stunning Swedish countryside, and Kim’s fate is left untold. I suppose, in a way, Keining is saying that there is no easy solution, no way out, or answer for trans teens yet, and that many will be teetering on the edge of either obliteration or redemption. In this way, the conclusion of Girls Lost is kind of beautiful in its truth.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★