Girl is a fairly difficult film to review from the cisgender perspective. Lukas Dhont’s debut feature is a character study of Lara, a trans girl aspiring to be a ballerina. It’s a compassionate narrative that comes at the expense of propitious representation; the subjective experience of Lara’s life is depicted with little more than misery.
Intending to undergo sex reassignment surgery, Lara (Victor Polster) has the greatest support in the form of her father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), who accompanies her to the doctor for sporadic check-ups during hormone replacement therapy. The rest of her day is spent practising at the ballet academy, where she’s persecuted by transphobic classmates.
Dhont’s examination of his character’s skirmish with hostile forces, both internal and external, is almost exclusively revolved around the lower half of her body. Lara tucks her penis and applies sticky tape to it for maintenance (a bloodily harmful process) prior to attending her ballet classes, which often end with her inexplicably slipping up.
This scenario is cause for repeated déjà vu. Maybe it realistically mirrors real life’s long, slow procedure of gender transition and perfecting one’s dance ability, but Dhont’s perpetual repetition doesn’t make for particularly compelling cinema. Furthermore, it contributes to the filmmaker’s ill-conceived fascination with the body.
There are several Michael Bay-ish shots of the front and reverse midsections of the girls – not just Lara but her fellow dancers too. But, in this context, the gratuitous quality is removed in favour of… obsession? Exploitation? The questionable nature of the director’s focus stems from this critic’s compounding response to Girl, which itself stems from the worldwide critical acclaim the film has received.
It’s puzzling that Girl has had a largely positive reaction when it doesn’t really explore much more than body dysmorphia – which it doesn’t do very well either. That’s without even mentioning the ghastly, unmerited ending. One deadnaming moment sticks out for looking elsewhere in the trans representation but is ultimately just another part of the bigger, humiliating picture.
Certainly, it’s necessary to share a story that shows the horrible realities faced by transgender individuals. But won’t it only be truly progressive when trans characters are championed with empowering cinematic roles, like Hari Nef’s badass in last year’s Assassination Nation? On the other hand, Girl’s power is in the endless sympathy Lara’s plight has invited from cisgender critics and audiences, which some may say qualifies it as a success.
Girl is released in select cinemas and on demand on 15th March 2019.
Watch the trailer for Girl here: