by Toby Woollaston

girlIn his first feature, Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont has tightly packed a cinematic masterpiece into a topical powder keg. It’s little wonder that a production about a transgender ballerina has courted so much controversy; the pitfalls of which were well documented by Dhont’s well-meaning, but perhaps naive blind-casting of its lead role, Lara. In the end, he settled on a cis male actor, Victor Polster, to play a teenage girl who was born a male, much to the chagrin of the trans-community who felt it more appropriate that Lara be played by a transgender actor at the very least. There are valid points on both sides of the ledger, and notwithstanding further controversies, it’s a wonder that this hot potato of a film ever got off the ground. I’m glad it did.

The film gives a brutally honest account of Lara. Her induction into a prestigious Belgian ballet academy is fraught with difficulties surrounding her hormone treatment, the impeding sex-change procedure and the impact this has on her ability to dance. Polster’s tender portrayal of Lara belies his lack of acting experience, as he captures a teenager’s quiet fragility and petulant defiance with breath-taking skill. Dhont’s camera, which keeps Polster’s spell-binding performance centre of the frame, unapologetically explores Lara’s loneliness, highlighting the bond she has between her body and her emotional well-being.

Certainly, this cis male reviewer wouldn’t begin to cast assumptions on what it’s like to be transgender. However, Girl harnesses one of cinema’s great commissions, offering a direct channel (seemingly, at least) into the life of a transgendered person with whom I could connect.

Straight out of the Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) school of aesthetics, Girl embraces a sensual harmony of movement and sound—its vérité style lending the film a lived-in quality that makes Lara’s story feel so very authentic. Girl may not be to everyones liking, but I found it an uplifting triumph and an astonishing statement on the human spirit.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.