It’s an idyllic moment in the glowing light of morning. A blonde teenage girl is woken up by a little boy and it’s clear from the way they play together that they’re brother and sister. And they’re very close. But scratch the surface and all is not quite what it seems.
The bond is genuine, but their relationship is more complicated. In Girl, Lara (Victor Polster), the sister, is facing two huge challenges, ones that run in parallel and yet mesh together. She’s determined to be a ballet dancer but, having started comparatively late, she’s warned by her prestigious college that she may not make the grade and, even if she does, the rigours of her training will take a physical toll on her teenage body. Those painful, bleeding, taped-up feet are just the start. The other challenge facing her, both emotionally and physically, will be equally permanent. Lara was born a boy but, desperate to be a girl, is undergoing drug treatment in preparation for gender re-assignment.
There’s more. Inevitably, the attitudes of others weigh on her mind and make her self-conscious, even when the teachers and students at the ballet school seem to accept her unconditionally. Yet again, the situation isn’t quite what it seems: there are unintentional slights, like one of the teachers asking the class if they have any objection to Lara sharing the changing rooms with them. More deliberate, and more painful, is when the other girls demand to see what she looks like under her clothes. After all, she’s seen them naked in the changing room, so why shouldn’t they see her? Even at home, her sanctuary, her little brother lashes out when he’s annoyed, doing the one thing he knows will hurt the most: calling her by her male name, Victor. She’s cut to the quick.
Her father, on the other hand, genuinely accepts her as she is. In contrast to his artistic, elegant daughter, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) is a down to earth taxi driver, constantly supportive and unconditionally caring, even when he doesn’t necessarily agree with what she’s doing. He’s the sort of father everybody dreams of, a first cousin of Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name, and it’s an equally compassionate, unfussy piece of acting. Yet, despite his unflinching support, Lara starts to become ill, which means stalling her drug treatment. Sick of taping up her body, the damage it does to her skin and depriving herself of water during classes, her desperation reaches fever pitch and she takes extreme measures. It’s a scene that will haunt you for hours afterwards: it’s agony to watch and deeply upsetting, even though it’s filmed with subtlety and tenderness.
In fact, the same description applies to the film. Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont has crafted something that’s beautiful, heart-rending, sad and uplifting all at the same time, making for a strikingly assured first feature. He’s also elicited great performances, not just from Worthalter, but also Polster, who is remarkable is Lara. Both the film and its subject beg for understanding, taking us behind the headlines and painting an intimate portrait of the individual and the family. Don’t expect an easy watch, but do expect to think, be moved and to be emotionally shattered. Girl cries out to be seen.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama, Foreign Language | Cert: 15 | UK, 15 March (2019) | Curzon Artificial Eye | Dir. Lukas Dhont | Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen.