Words

David Jenkins

Girl – first look review

This brilliant rites of passage drama from Belgium sees a trans girl fighting to become a career ballerina.

Lara (Victor Polster) wants two things in life: to become a career ballerina and to complete her gender realignment from male to female. She is tall and sinewy with an elfin face, and perfectly built to dance. Yet the piece of excess flesh between her legs is also the figurative millstone around her neck, shaping almost every decision she makes in life. Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s exceptional teen movie debut, Girl, follows the softly spoken Lara as she negotiates such banal tasks as going to the bathroom during ballet practice, alongside the complicated pre-op treatment that comes ahead of her final operation.

Where the film excels is that it never comes across as a study, or a story that’s being told for cold educational purposes. There’s a subtle realism to the way the characters interact, as well as a dearth of what you might see as big dramatic moments (although, there definitely are a few big ones thrown in). Even thought Lara is going through intensive ballet trials, you never get the sense that this is a movie where the character is all set to embrace classical art as a way to triumph over his or her adversity. There’s something deeper and more moving: a depiction of a trans character who craves both change and normalcy, the simple desire to live and to be content in her own body.

Polster delivers a mesmerising performance in the title role, never overemphasising emotions and hitting every necessary note with subtle, graceful elan. Watching the film is a game of looking at the Lara being presented to the world and the Lara being hidden from the world, the fractured soul underneath that, awkward cream-coloured skin. One is happy to respond, “I’m fine!”, every time her wellbeing is asked after by her doting father (Arieh Worthalter), and the other is a mess of nerves and eagerness, breaking down in the split seconds between painted smiles and parrying the jibes from her peers with quiet bewilderment.

Just as in Lara’s arduous dance practices, there are a couple of very minor missteps. A humiliation sequence early on, where a school teacher asks Lara to close her eyes while the female members of her class decide if she can use the same restroom as them, just feels like a stunt from a lesser, more morally didactic movie. There’s also a bullying circle sequence later which just translates as a quick and cheap way to make Lara more sad.

Yet these moments stand out because the all material around them is so rigorous and sensitive. The dance sequences are beautifully filmed – a casual celebration of bodies in motion which boasts an exciting, documentary intimacy. The climax is surprising (shocking, even) but extremely plausible given what comes before it, capping off a sensational and assured film which will hopefully be the first of many for its talented maker and incredible star.

Published 14 May 2018

Tags: Cannes Lukas Dhont Victor Polster

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