The shortlist of nine films to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2019 was announced yesterday (December 18) and, to many people’s surprise, GIRL was not included. The Belgian film, the feature debut by director and co-writer Lukas Dhont, was the big winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival taking home four awards including the Camera d’Or for Dhont and the Best Actor prize in the Un Certain Regard section for the film’s star, now 16-year-old Victor Polster. It’s now come to Hong Kong to compete against AQUAMAN and you shouldn’t miss it.
On the surface, Lara (Polster) seems like a typical 15-year-old girl. She lives with her caring father and adoring 5-year-old brother in a tiny apartment somewhere in Belgium and has dreams of becoming a professional ballerina. She attends one of the country’s best dance academies, but because she’s a late starter to ballet, she must push herself to her physical and emotional limits in order to keep up with her classmates who have all been dancing since they were little. Lara, we quickly learn, wasn’t always Lara. She was born Victor, a boy, and a few years earlier, with her family’s support, she started to make the transition to become a woman, taking puberty inhibitors, growing her hair long and dressing in women’s clothes. The doctors and psychologists have told her that when she turns 16, she can consider having gender-confirmation surgery, assuming she’s healthy and psychologically ready, but for Lara that day can’t come soon enough. Although she appears to be well adjusted, Lara’s frustration and general teenage impatience start to get the better of her, putting a rift not just between her and her goals but between her and father too.
Today’s teenagers have plenty of issues to deal with ranging from online bullying to self-acceptance (to gun violence, depending on where they live), so those of us who don’t have transgender friends or trans children can only begin to imagine how much more complicated life can be for these kids. Lara seems to be fortunate though. She has an understanding family, her school’s administrators and teachers are indifferent that she’s transitioning and, for the most part, so are her classmates. They are accepting of her showering with them, although Lara prefers to do so with her panties on so that they won’t see what she’s hiding and how she’s hiding it. Sadly, however, as much as everything seems to be going Lara’s way, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she still sees a boy and perhaps won’t begin to see herself as a girl until she has had her operation.
Given all the flack raised over cisgender actors like Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Tambor and others playing transgender characters in film and on TV, it’s not surprising that many transgender people have taken issue with this film too. I firmly sit in the camp that believes that actors should be allowed to take on any role they want be it cis, trans, Jewish, Italian or whatever, so I don’t have much sympathy for these complainers. (Okay, I’ll concede that Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S was just plain wrong but that was a different time to now.) But as for this film, I doubt that any 15-year-old transgender actor/ballet dancer could have played Lara with more heart or sincerity than Polster does here.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Lara as she struggles both on the dance floor and off. Both journeys are arduous and painful, with disappointments and challenges along the way. Lara, though, refuses to give up even when it breaks both her spirit and her body. Although the film’s final scene offers a brief glimpse at how Lara fares through all of this, Dhont, for better or worse, has left the details of how she gets there up for us to decide.
GIRL is a film you definitely should check out. Its climax is one that will lead to plenty of discussion afterward.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Thursday, December 20th at 8:30 am HK time!
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