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European films

Girl film review: sublime transgender drama explores adolescence through a teenager’s dancing dreams

  • The dramatic and shocking ending may prove too much for some, but director Lukas Dhont’s skills as a filmmaker impress throughout
  • Victor Polster is superb in the lead, and his dance school background means he is a fine choice to play the role
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 3:08pm

4/5 stars

Ever since Flemish director Lukas Dhont’s sublime Girl premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it’s been picking up prizes and whipping up controversy. The Belgian-produced film, about a young transgender teenager, won the Camera d’Or for first feature in Cannes and has been nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. An Oscar nods seems a certainty.

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Still, following this year’s Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman , which featured a transgender actress in the lead, Girl has endured a backlash among that community. Some have objected, perhaps with good reason, to the casting of a cisgender actor – Victor Polster – in the lead. Therefore, despite its good intentions, it’s inevitably a film destined to divide.

Scripted by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens, it follows 15-year-old Lara (Polster), who has moved with understanding father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and younger brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) to a new city, where she is able to study ballet at one of the country’s dance schools.

At the same time, Lara is preparing to transition after being born in the body of a boy. Sessions with a psychiatrist and hormone treatment are par for the course, with Lara desperate to change her gender. What impresses here is that Dhont does not reduce Lara’s troubles to external, physical bullying or transphobic commentary.

Her struggles are far more interior, particularly when the hormone treatment appears not to work. In many ways, her journey becomes a metaphor for adolescence, and the way most teenagers cannot help but wish their adulthood into being. The physical pressure faced by ballerinas, the pain the body is often subjected to, is another element Dhont plays with.

Polster is quite superb in the lead, and his dance school background means he is a fine choice to play the role.

Dhont, whose earlier shorts Headlong and L’infini also touched on the dance world, directs with great potency, working with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to conjure the expressive dance sequences. Alongside Polster, Worthalter is an excellent as the kindly father, who is sick with worry for his child’s health.

No doubt some will find the dramatic and shocking ending too much, but Dhont ensures we’re so invested in Lara’s journey that the impact it makes will leave you reeling. Whether you agree with Dhont’s approach to the transgender subject, his skills as a filmmaker are impressive. Girl will hit you with an almighty force.

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