Directed by Lukas Dhont.
Starring Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Valentijn Dhaenens and Katelijne Damen.
Fifteen-year-old Lara’s transitioning is further complicated by her pursuit of a professional career in ballet at a prestigious Belgian dance academy.
Written and directed by Lukas Dhont, and in the running in the first feature competition at the London Film Festival, Girl is a sensitive but revealing portrayal of teenager Lara’s (Victor Polster) transitioning as she seeks to come to terms with her more complex journey to womanhood. Further complicating matters is her desire to become a professional ballerina, which pushes her into the difficult and uncompromising world of dance at a prestigious Belgian academy, where she must every day confront the physiological differences between herself and the rest of the girls in training, as well as ballet’s rigid gender roles.
The central performance of Lara is quite simply remarkable, and perfectly pitched by actor Victor Polster and director Lukas Dhont. As a cisgender actor Polster does not have first-hand knowledge of his character’s situation, but his performance is, nevertheless, totally vulnerable and raw: it unsurprisingly clinched ‘Un Certain Regard’ at Cannes earlier this year in the performance category. (This is alongside Girl winning the Caméra d’Or for first feature and the Queer Palm, just FYI). It’s genuinely difficult to imagine how the film could have been made – or what it might have been – without Polster’s central contribution.
Girl does not flinch from detailing the intimacies of transitioning, from Lara’s delayed puberty and coping with her doses of hormones to the repressing of her ambiguous sexual desire, as she is unwilling to share her body as it is now. So complete is her alienation from her body that she is constantly taping in order to fit in with her cohort, despite the damage it does. There’s also the insidious power of ignorant but curious teenage girls, who may seemingly happily allow Lara to use the female changing rooms but view her as ‘other’. In an uncomfortable but realistic scene, they pressure her to show off the body she tries to hide. There is also the brusque ballet instructor who coaches Lara in extra pointe work, something which, until now, Lara’s physiology excluded her from. She makes a casual comment in the face of Lara’s painful toes that it’s not always possible to just “lob things off”.
There are also some amazingly positive portrayals of support in the film. Lara is receiving full medical and psychological monitoring and support during her preparation for surgery, and her father, Mathias, is entirely accepting of her decisions – if constantly worried about her (this is another very appealing turn from actor Arieh Worthalter after last year’s London Film Festival appearance in Razzia). It’s refreshing to see a father so empathetic in this situation, when it could have been easy – if a cheap shot – to have him in denial. This also serves to remind how tough the turmoil of transitioning is, regardless of a support network (for those lucky enough to have one).
The training room ballet in Girl is choreographed very viscerally, with an emphasis on the physical. The dance – and the discipline – of ballet is uncompromising, and the strain bodies are put under is evident. Lara is pushed to the edge both physically and mentally by the rigours of her dance training and her desire to fully transition physically ahead of her doctor’s advice.
A special mention must also be made of the film’s music, with its signature shimmering melody incredibly evocative and touching at crucial moments.
Girl is a very impressive debut feature film, with nothing shown on screen that seems superfluous to the central story. With devastating performances too, you’d have to have a heart of stone to remain unmoved.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★