‘20,000 Species of Bees’ Review: Gentle, Humane Spanish Drama Chronicles a Young Trans Girl’s Summer of Self-Realization

Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren's accomplished debut feature treats its eight-year-old protagonist's gender crisis with care and compassion, but is also attentive to wider familial rhythms and conflicts.

20000 Species of Bees
Courtesy of Luxbox

In time, stories like “20,000 Species of Bees” will come to feel as commonplace within the coming-of-age genre as tales of first love or heartbreak: a young girl, unhappy in her skin and at odds with her family, finally recognizes her gender over the course of one pivotal summer, and persuades others to recognize it too. For now, Spanish writer-director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s mellow, softly piercing debut feature joins the likes of Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” and Emanuele Crialese’s “L’Immensità” in a select but growing canon of trans or nonbinary childhood studies. Unassuming and meanderingly character-oriented, the film doesn’t assert itself as an issue drama — in large part because, as Solaguren presents her eight-year-old protagonist’s gradual steps toward self-realization, her film doesn’t see much of an issue to begin with.

“How come you know who you are and I don’t?” Simply phrased but far more complex to answer, this is the question our young heroine (Sofía Otero) throws at her sympathetic but flummoxed mother Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz), at the height of her personal identity crisis — a point at which she claims to have no name at all. She no longer identifies with Aitor, the male name she was assigned at birth; Coco, the familial nickname she later assumed, is no longer fit for purpose either, too closely associated with her two older siblings’ teasing. On a walk with her grandmother, elderly strangers cooingly remark what a pretty girl she is, with her shaggy dark hair and colorful outfits; family and friends, meanwhile, address and refer to her with male pronouns.

Ane, a sculptor who perhaps would like to be more of a free-spirited artist type than she is, encourages her daughter to ignore such errors and inconsistencies: “There’s no girls’ stuff and boys’ stuff,” she insists more than once, as a constant parenting principle. On the face of it, it’s a commendably progressive stance. For a young child wondering if they were born in the wrong body, however, this avoidance of binary thinking increasingly feels like a dodge: an excuse not to talk about her own gender dysphoria, or to admit a limited adult understanding thereof.

To be fair to Ane, she’s got troubles of her own. With relations between her and her husband Gorka (Martxelo Rubio) at a tricky point, and job anxieties further eating away at her attention, she takes herself and the children off to her sleepy home village in the Basque Country for an extended summer stay with her mother Lita (Itziar Lazkano). It’s not an altogether relaxing vacation, beginning with Ane and Lita’s snappish, mutually judgmental relationship. For the erstwhile Coco, meanwhile, the freedom of the countryside could offer her a theoretical respite from having to identify herself to others, if it weren’t for everyone in her extended family having opinions on the matter.

She finds an ally, however, in her great-aunt Lourdes (Ane Gabarain, wonderful), a patient, pragmatic bee-keeper who takes her at her word when she says who she is — and further encourages her to come up with a name for herself. Lourdes also fills her in on some comforting Basque apian mythology, encouraging her to share secrets and confessions with the beehives when no one else will listen. Solaguren’s discursive script finds much metaphorical fodder in the communal structures of nature, relative to the conflicts and aberrations of human family life. Roles are scattered and contested in the bickering clan presented here, with men largely absent from the fray: The shadow of Ane’s late father, also an artist, exerts more influence on her than that of her backgrounded husband.

Not unlike last year’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Alcarràs” — another gently roving Spanish family drama, the arthouse exposure of which this similarly appealing title could match — this sprawl of secondary family business gives proceedings texture and buoyancy, relieving the film somewhat of its own central thematic weight. Solaguren’s dramatization of an individual’s burgeoning transgender awareness is never without compassion, though it occasionally succumbs to topical cliché. A surfeit of mermaid symbolism, the significance of which is already prominently established in the trans community, feels somewhat heavy-handedly woven into the script.

Alternately mischievous and diffident, as her character’s swinging moods and modes dictate, Otero’s performance in the lead is utterly winning; a late scene in which she experiments with wearing a dress in public requires a subtle spectrum of emotions and body language cues from her, and it’s to Solaguren’s credit that these turns never feel forced or affected. Indeed the film’s whole ensemble, even at its most fractiously opposed, is steered toward creased, careworn restraint rather than shouty grandstanding. Craft contributions take a similar tack, from DP Gina Ferrer García’s languid, fluid movement through storied households and chaotic family gatherings, often painting in dappled summer shadow, to Eva Valiño’s whispery sound design, delicate enough that a sudden, loud exclamation of a name — the right name, at last — sets the whole film rippling.

‘20,000 Species of Bees’ Review: Gentle, Humane Spanish Drama Chronicles a Young Trans Girl’s Summer of Self-Realization

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 21, 2023. Running time: 129 MIN.

  • Production: (Spain) A Gariza Films, Inicia Films production in association with Sirimiri Films. (World sales: Luxbox, Paris.) Producers: Lara Izagirre Garizurieta, Valérie Delpierre.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren. Camera: Gina Ferrer García. Editor: Raúl Barreras.
  • With: Sofía Otero, Patricia López Arnaiz, Ane Gabarain, Itziar Lazkano, Martxelo Rubio, Sara Cózar, Unax Hayden, Andere Garabieta, Miguel Garcés. (Spanish, Basque, French dialogue)