In his first feature, Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont has tightly packed a cinematic masterpiece into a topical powder keg.
It's little wonder that a production about a transgender ballerina has courted so much controversy; the pitfalls of which were well documented by Dhont's well-meaning but perhaps naive blind-casting of its lead role, Lara. He settled on a cis male actor, Victor Polster, to play a teenage girl who was born a male, much to the chagrin of the trans-community, who felt it more appropriate that Lara be played by a transgender actor at the very least. There are valid points on both sides of the ledger, and notwithstanding further controversies, it's a wonder that this hot potato of a film ever got off the ground. I'm glad it did.
The film gives a brutally honest account of Lara. Her induction into a prestigious Belgian ballet academy is fraught with difficulties surrounding her hormone treatment, the impeding sex-change procedure and the impact this has on her ability to dance. Polster's tender portrayal of Lara belies his lack of acting experience, as he captures a teenager's quiet fragility and petulant defiance with breath-taking skill. Dhont's camera, which keeps Polster's spell-binding performance centre of the frame, unapologetically explores Lara's loneliness, highlighting the bond she has between her body and her emotional well-being.
Certainly, this cis male reviewer wouldn't begin to cast assumptions on what it's like to be transgender. However, Girl harnesses one of cinema's great commissions, offering a direct channel (seemingly, at least) into the life of a transgendered person with whom I could connect.
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Straight out of the Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) school of aesthetics, Girl embraces a sensual harmony of movement and sound—its verite style lending the film a lived-in quality that makes Lara's story feel so very authentic. Girl may not be to everyone's liking, but I found it an uplifting triumph and an astonishing statement on the human spirit.
Cast: Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Katelijne Damen
Director: Lukas Dhont
Running time: 105 mins
Rating: R16 (Sex scenes, sexual themes, nudity, self-harm and content that may disturb.)
Verdict: An immersive and heartfelt portrayal of a young trans experience