Movie review: Bare, painful look at sexual identity

In Girl, Victor Polster plays a teenage male who is in the process of transitioning to female.
In Girl, Victor Polster plays a teenage male who is in the process of transitioning to female.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

REVIEW / DRAMA

GIRL (R21)

106 minutes/Opens tomorrow at The Projector/4 stars

The story: Lara (Victor Polster) is a 15-year-old Belgian male undergoing the process of transitioning to female. She has begun living as a female in the months before the start of hormone treatments and sex-reassignment surgery. Her family and friends support her choices, but after she transfers to an elite ballet academy, the school's physical and psychological demands begin to take a toll. Based on a true story.

By coincidence, this is one of two films this week that revolve around femininity and dance. The other film Suspiria is horror (see other story), but this drama has its share of moments that are hard to watch.

There must be something in Belgium that produces strong, interesting films that deal with sexual identity, which go on to become the country's selection in the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars.

In 2011, Bullhead, starring Matthias Schoenaerts in a breakout role, looked at a man who becomes a tragic caricature of manhood because of injected male hormones.

Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont, who is making his feature debut, had intended to make a documentary about a trans-female ballet dancer who made the news, but after failing to get her cooperation, he opted to go the route of an "inspired by" film.

The style is deeply naturalistic, with a look that feels unscripted.

Dhont's camera follows Lara (Polster) from the time she gets out of bed, into her school's dance floors and locker rooms, her chats with her father and then to bed.

In between, this film, backed by interviews with persons in the trans community, goes where few films about gender have ventured: the bathroom.

Here, in shots so intimate they feel like a shocking violation of privacy, the audience sees what it takes to pass as female when one is born biologically male.

Lara's bleeding feet, encased in delicate ballet shoes, become a metaphor for other parts of her body that have to conform to her mental image of herself. Polster, a first-time actor, is shockingly good as introspective, taciturn Lara.

There has been opposition to this film from the trans community, who say it is a piece of voyeurism that cheapens their experience. That might well be the case, but there is much here that also deepens the understanding of the effort it takes to cross gender boundaries.

The bodily punishment of the dance studio pales in comparison to the humiliation Lara suffers as a person who violates norms, even in so-called liberal, progressive societies.

In one heartbreaking scene at a party for girls, she gets a brutal reminder that being included in the group is conditional and that membership always hangs by a thread.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2019, with the headline 'Bare, painful look at sexual identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe