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 transgender teen 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). A dance student at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp 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.
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“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.
She is sending clear signals to the world, and to her father in particular, that she’s eager to be done with the process. Her penis in particular is an obstacle — one the film is not shy about depicting, which could cause problems for an American release, where underage nudity is treated with zero tolerance. For ballet class, where her leotard leaves little to the imagination, Lara tucks in her equipment and fastens it in place with heavy tape, leaving the area inflamed and, later, infected. Her progress (or lack thereof) is an obsession, and here it helps to have a male actor in the role, as the character spends long hours studying herself in the mirror, waiting for the first sign of her breasts to develop.
Since Dhont aligns the audience’s view so closely with Lara’s, we don’t necessarily know whether the other dancers know her secret, but it seems safe to assume she’s trying to keep it hidden (though she uses the girls’ locker room, she comes already dressed, making excuses so as not to shower with the others afterward). At school, on the other hand, the teacher embarrasses Lara by drawing attention to her, and in the lone instance of being mistreated by her classmates, a friend humiliates her at a birthday party.
There’s no question that the world has a hard time wrapping its head around the transgender experience, but Dhont doesn’t dwell on the small-minded bias of uncomprehending folks. Here, his heart — and that of the audience — goes out to Lara, whom Polster plays in such piercingly relatable terms, trying to navigate her own journey. Becoming a woman is just the start — the assimilation that would make the rest of her goals easier. She also wants to be a top dancer, and that’s a tough road: one traversed with bloody toes and hours of demanding practice.
Last year, French director James Bort directed his wife and prima ballerina Dorothée Gilbert in the Oscar-shortlisted “Rise of a Star,” about an ambitious dancer who attempts to hide that she’s pregnant from the company’s director (Catherine Deneuve), lest it jeopardize her career. The 19-minute short film would make an ideal double bill with “Girl,” serving to remind that the movie is about both Lara’s gender-changing journey and her all-consuming drive to be a great dancer — to the exclusion of all other desires.
Both her father and her therapist ask about the kind of boys she likes, but Lara hasn’t given it much thought. An awkward fumble with a cute neighbor (Tijmen Govaerts) feels less like a genuine sexual urge than an attempt to fulfill her identity as a girl, which could also be said for the extreme gesture she makes at the end. For Lara, dancing matters more than dating, more than anything, and as such, Dhont’s relatively modest film manages to encompass the themes of both “Billy Elliot” and “Tomboy,” and deserves the recognition of both.