For anyone feeling that “this gender thing has gone too far”, this low-key, intense Belgian drama about a 15 year old girl, born with the body of a boy and trying to be herself, may go some way to help you understand.
The style of the film feels like a documentary as we watch Lara (Viktor Polster) joining a new performing arts school. She lives with her dad Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and young brother Milo (Oliver Bodart). She has left her previous life behind to help her transition to living as a girl.
The school is reluctant to take her on as she must learn to dance on point shoes, something her feet are ill-prepared for, despite years of ballet. Her strategy is to keep her head down and work hard, pushing her body in a way that jeopardises her well-being and transition. At first she seems to be accepted socially by her peers but we keep seeing moments where she is marginalised. She absorbs each blow and, although her face remains still and her lips smile, we can see in her eyes a universe of hurt and confusion.
Lukas Dhont’s direction is cool and observational, rarely leaving Lara’s face. Polster is outstanding in the lead – a debut that came about because of the difficulty of finding someone suitable who could both act and dance and he was found in the corps of dancers already employed for the film. He embodies so many qualities of a teenage girl; the eagerness to please, the desperation to be tough. Some scenes are hard to watch as Lara pushes and punishes the body that seems to be letting her down.
Although this is definitely a story about gender affirmation, it is also about the excruciating pains of being a teen. Lara is like any young person trying to be part of a tribe but subtly (and not so subtly) ostracised because of perceived difference. It shows the cumulative damage of so many small, callous moments – using the wrong pronoun or name, being separated from other girls, treating her as less deserving of respect. The tragedy for Lara is how she internalises the disrespect and her subsequent self-hatred.
For all my readers who feel that accepting gender diversity is ‘political correctness gone mad’ and that their lives are made harder by having to change their understanding and assumptions, watch this film and see what a difference respect and acceptance make.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.