Cannes Film Review: ‘Girl’

Dec 14 2017
films
Director:
Lukas Dhont
With:
Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens. (French, Flemish, English dialogue)

1 hour 45 minutes

Adolescence is inevitably turbulent, and one of its cruelest paradoxes is the way society pushes us to be exceptional (who doesn’t want to feel special?) at the same time that insecure/jealous peers reinforce the idea that it will all pass easier if we just keep our heads down. Add to that the complication of feeling as though you were born with the wrong gender, and those years are sure to be confusing: How to stand out and blend in at the same time? Few films convey that tension better than “Girl,” a deeply humane first feature from Belgian director Lukas Dhont about a boy who wants to be a ballerina.

Arriving 21 years after Belgian classic “Ma Vie en Rose,” but rejecting that film’s hyper-stylized, high-kitsch aesthetic in favor of fellow countrymen the Dardenne brothers’ more down-to-earth sense of observational naturalism, “Girl” focuses on how the greatest conflict for transgender youth can often be internal. In simple, unambiguous terms, Dhont delivers an intuitively accessible look at a gender nonconforming teenager trying to find the courage to be herself, relying on a stunning central performance from 15-year-old Victor Polster in which the cisgender thesp pulls off a remarkable transformation that, in the same year “A Fantastic Woman” won the foreign language Oscar, could rile those who insist that such roles go to nonbinary actors.

Someone else will have to make that case, since “Girl” remains a much-needed film, and newcomer Polster proves every bit as impressive as Hilary Swank did in her breakout turn in “Boys Don’t Cry” (although that film has since been picketed on college campuses as the equivalent of blackface). An accomplished young dancer with the Ballet Vlaanderen who makes his screen acting debut here, Polster tackles the combined challenge of playing a character who never once questions her femininity and a teen whose commitment to ballet is such that her gender becomes the biggest impediment to realizing those dreams — which is to say, more important than the gender of whoever plays Lara is that person’s ability to dance like the dickens.

“Girl,” which Dhont co-wrote with Angelo Tijssens, introduces Lara in a tender moment between her and younger brother Milo (Oliver Bodart), withholding the reveal that she was born trapped in a boy’s body until she removes her shirt a few scenes later. Within the protective embrace of her Francophone family — and especially in the view of her accepting father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) — Lara is already a girl, and as her Flemish-speaking psychiatrist puts it, “The only thing we can do is confirm and support that.”

But teenagers are perhaps the least patient people on Earth. They want to drive, to date, to vote, to drink — all of it immediately, nothing worth waiting for. In the case of transgender youth, this is never more true than during the extended period of hormone treatments and therapy visits in which these butterflies-in-waiting try to speed through the cocoon phase of their transformation — illustrated here by an early scene in which Lara takes it upon herself to pierce her ears.

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