If the standing ovation and four awards at Cannes (including the Queer Palm and coveted ‘Caméra d’Or’) weren’t a dead giveaway, ‘Girl’ by 27 year-old filmmaker Lukas Dhont is a wildly impressive debut. Representing Belgium at the Academy Awards next year, the film takes an intimate look at the life of a teenage girl – depicted artfully by first-time big-screen actor Victor Polster – working hard to become a dancer. It just so happens she is also in transition. The film debuts at Ghent’s Film Fest on October 9 – with a wide release following on October 17 – but we’ve already had a preview chance to meet ‘Girl’. Here’s what to know – sans spoilers.
The story of ‘Girl’ introduces you to Lara, a determined fifteen year-old who aims to make it big as a professional ballerina by enrolling in a new school. She takes on the world and her body, fighting to bridge the gap between her gender identity and current physical reality. Victor Polster – a sixteen year-old actor and dancer at the Antwerp Royal Ballet Academy – as Lara is a force of incredible restraint and lacks any sort of artifice, you can feel the character’s growing pains crackle throughout every second on-screen. Lara’s closed-off, deflective, introvert nature is constantly countered by displays of formidable internal strength and determination. Note that if you’re highly squeamish, you should know better than to see any flick about ballerinas because they are literal Dothraki warriors on satin square-toed slippers. Ballet don’t play.
Arieh Worthalter (Bastille Day, Marie Curie), portraying Lara’s single father, is right on the money as a concerned, loving parent and delivers just the ideal amount of casual ease and soul-piercing intensity when needed. Though her situation is quite specific, there’s an immediate kinship the viewer establishes with Lara and her nuclear family. I for one surely don’t know what it’s like to feel the way she does. Being a guarded, frustrated teen carrying intense secrets however does not require a stretch of the imagination for most of us – especially if you grew up queer. Even with a loving and supportive situation at home, sometimes the hurt is too deep to bear. Yet we pas de bourrée on to keep everyone satisfied.
The accomplished screenplay by director Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens comfortably weaves between French and Dutch, making it a most Belgian affair. DOP Frank van den Eeden handles the camera with flowing naturalism, balancing impactful, close, hasty shots with warm, brooding colour tones. Another key player is the choreography, crafted by the acclaimed Antwerp choreographer and Beyoncé collaborator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It’s clear the dance isn’t meant to be pretty or twee, it’s all about impact and the pain forever bubbling under the surface. French composer Valentin Hadjadj’s score is tense, but not overwhelming. It seems all the moving parts of this story teeter en pointe but never falter or flail – even if Lara hits the ground occasionally.
Casting the title role required a long audition period, where both cisgender and transgender actors tried out for the role. You may disagree with the intrinsic casting choice and for some, the film’s focus on the physical aspects of gender dysphoria might be too much, but it’s quite plain to see Polster truly devours the part. The discussion involving the portrayal of trans characters by cisgender actors, or trans storylines written by cis screenwriters, remains crucial to be had. The critiques are needed. If Scarlett Johansson can be staved off long enough and trans actors get to play well-written trans roles, the results can be, well, transcendent. ‘Pose’ is all the proof you need. It’s evident though that ‘Girl’ is not meant to be all-encompassing – a burden often placed on queer cinematic pieces due to lack of overall representation. It’s worth remembering that this is one single story, told with striking tenderness and seasoned sensibility. A few stars have been born.
‘Girl’, in (Belgian) cinemas as from October 17 2018.