★★★★ by Ifan Llewelyn
The story of Belgian transgender ballet dancer Nora Monsecour is one not familiar to most of us, despite making waves on the contemporary dance circuit. Although taking initial steps to transition at the age of eleven, taking hormone replacements, she wasn’t allowed to join her school’s point class. She was 15-years-old when filmmaker Lukas Dhont (only 18 years old at the time) happened across her story in a Belgian newspaper. Dhont asked Monsecour if she would want to be the subject of a documentary about her experience, but still, in her teen years, she didn’t feel comfortable stepping in front of the camera. Not wanting her story to go untold, she and Dhont worked for eight years on developing a fictionalised retelling of her story. The end result, Girl, is an unflinching look at a cisgendered conception of the trans experience.
The film follows Lara, a 15-year-old trans girl, as she enrols at a prestigious Dutch-speaking dance academy. Her father and younger brother have had to relocate following an uneasy coming out experience at Lara’s previous school. We see her struggling to maintain her family life, juggling doctors’ appointments and psychiatric evaluations, all the while striving to achieve perfection in her dance training. The central struggle throughout the film is Lara’s fixation with her appearance, and her impatience with her body’s development on hormones, making damaging decisions to make things easier for herself. The film reaches its crescendo when Lara’s increasing frustration with the transitioning process gets the best of her as she takes the issue, and the kitchen scissors, into her own hands.
Despite being mostly concerned with bodily issues, the physicality of these characters pales in comparison to the effervescence of the relationship between father and daughter. Lara and her father travel a pot-holed highway of frustration and devotion, and seeing their bond deteriorate is devastating. To anyone who had an understanding parent when they came out as LGBTQ+, the teenage struggle is strange, where no matter how they strive to support you, there’s that frustration that they can never truly understand you. This is something compassionately portrayed here.
There are two distinct controversies that have inevitably followed this trans-centric film. The first is the casting of a cisgendered actor in the central role, with actor Victor Polster making his acting debut as Lara. In going about casting someone as a Belgian, transgender ballet dancer it is clear that settling upon Polster couldn’t have been an easy decision – it’s also a sin slightly excused when you know the film makers originally approached the film’s real life, trans subject to play the role. The fact that he is not a trans woman might be fodder for some understandable chagrin, but his performance is truly breathtaking. Unlike his Hollywood predecessors, namely Jared Leto in a headscarf and lipstick, there is no mistaking Lara is anything other than a girl. You become as frustrated as she does when her gender isn’t recognised by the people around her.
The second comes with the film’s preoccupation with Lara’s body, as the camera lingers around her crotch, and we see her slowly tearing off the tape from her crotch. But this is a film about a dancer’s frustration with her body, and there are as many scenes of her tending to her bruised and battered feet. Though alone this film is a sensitive take on the trans body issue, in our current climate of the gender debate being too caught up in issues of the body, it is alas a little ill-timed.
Girl is out now in select cinemas.