The psychological fallout from alternative sexualities is explored to subtle and penetrating effect in Lucia Puenzo’s “XXY,” a study of teen angst that’s grounded in more than simply nebulous emotion. Pic has more in common with standard child-parent conflict dramas than it would probably care to admit, but its sensitive treatment of an equally sensitive theme elevates it into something memorable. Only drawbacks are some clumsy symbolism and a slight tendency to be overly schematic. Plenty of fest exposure beckons for Puenzo’s debut movie in which, unusually, accomplishment matches ambition.
Along with her parents, marine biologist Kraken (Ricardo Darin) and Suli (Valeria Bertuchelli), teen Alex (Ines Efron) has left Argentina for Uruguay. Despite the title’s foreshadowing, we have to wait a while before discovering the reasons for the family’s move and Alex’s obviously alienated state: s/he’s a hermaphrodite.
Alex, having reached puberty, must decide about her future. But any decision is complicated by the arrival of family friends, plastic surgeon Ramiro (German Palacios), Erika (Carolina Pelereti), and their toothy son, Alvaro (Martin Piroyanski). No sooner have they arrived than Alex is proposing outright to Alvaro that they have sex together.
Meanwhile, Alex has broken the nose of local boy Vando (Luciano Nobile) for casting aspersions on his sexuality. After a grueling scene in which Alex is near-raped by a gang of Vando’s friends, Kraken jumps to Alex’s defense. When Alvaro finally takes Alex up on the offer of sex, they are caught in flagrante delicto by Kraken.
The split widens between the worlds of the adults, with their petty rivalries, and the kids, who are discovering themselves sexually (Alvaro is slowly realizing that he’s gay). It’s the kids, finally, who show greater flexibility in coming to terms with their identities.
All of this is communicated with the minimum of stylistic fuss — long shots in true New Argentine Cinema style, plenty of windy-beach atmospherics and dialogue that’s scant but emotion-rich (storyline proceeds through just a few intimate conversations). Technique is at its best during a lengthy nighttime beach scene in which Alex, Alvaro and Vando simply sit there for a couple of minutes, the air heavy with inexpressible emotions.
Perfs are fine, with Efron and Piroyanski in particular exploiting the subtleties of the script to gripping effect as their cat-and-mouse relationship develops. Efron’s ambiguous sexuality is never in doubt; Piroyaski evokes much sympathy.
Darin turns in a typically brooding perf as the father who wants the best for his child but is uncomfortable with the truth about Alex. Thesp shoulders one of pic’s key themes — how parents will claim to put their children’s interests first while hypocritically controlling their sex lives in accordance with their own fears and prejudices.
A couple of characters could have been shed without doing undue damage to either theme or plot: neither Ramiro nor Erika are able to punch their dramatic weight.
Gently offbeat score, mostly just a plucked harp, counterpoints mood nicely.