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Girl: A powerful drama about a trans teen with dancing dreams

GIRL
directed by Lukas Dhont

Belgian film Girl follows the anxious life of a transgender ballerina as she transitions.

What is impossible for mere mortals must come easily to a dancer. Just you try pirouetting en pointe for half an hour. To attain that grace, that litheness, toes must be bent and broken, limbs contorted, entire bodies finessed and refined by sweat and blood.  

Sixteen-year-old Lara (Victor Polster) yearns for this life. Accepted into an elite academy in Belgium, she has the passion, devotion, and fortitude to endure all the arduous rigours that ballet will demand of her. But her trials are doubled. She is a young woman born in the body of a boy, her stressful regimen exacerbated by puberty blockers, by a sharp sense of dysphoria, by the minor humiliations she must inflict on herself to feel like she’s blending in with the “other girls.”

All around Lara there is care, encouragement, affirmation, and support. Dance teachers are curt but fair in their criticisms. A soft-spoken therapist tends to her struggling mind. Doctors are honest and informative. Above all, her father (Arieh Worthalter) is the very picture of what a devoted, loving parent should be.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Indeed Girl, in its quietly observant way, is strikingly empathetic and admirable in its commitment to normalising transgender experiences. There’s also a rich tension between the fluidity of identity and the strictures of dance, and the toll that both transformations exact.

Still, despite there being no villains and few bullying jeers, Lara’s story ventures ever downwards. Plagued by a body she feels is not hers, she spends hours in front of the mirror prodding, probing, folding, taping her own form into something more endurable. Her gaze is intense, but what feels most uncomfortable is the way we’re expected to probe and prod along with her. The camera lingers on perceived imperfections, keeps returning to ever more sensitive places.

In other words, Girl has an unhealthy fixation on genitalia, as if a preoccupation with the family jewels was the single and only issue for transgender people. Indeed, Girl’s most egregious misstep is an act of shocking self-destruction that risks disfiguring Lara – and the film too.

Then again, director Lukas Dhont has modelled this otherwise sensitive and championing story on the life of Nora Monsecour, a trans woman who tried to train as a classical dancer. This is her tale, not a generalised cri de cœur. “I don’t want to be an example,” Lara says movingly. “I just want to be a girl.”

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: The Match Factory