Friday 8 March 2019

Girl by Lukas Dhont - Review

When talking about Girl, it’s hard to separate the film from the controversy it has provoked since its release. The first-time feature from director Lukas Dhont has caused many critics to take issue with it for a number of reasons; these have mainly centred around the film’s presentation of its transgender protagonist and the apparent lack of any trans people in the film itself. Girl’s story and main character are inspired by dancer Nora Monsecour - who, according to interviews, also had some creative input in the film’s making - but here the central character Lara is played by Victor Polster, a cisgender male. These are substantial, valid concerns and worth highlighting, especially at a time when the industry is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of representation on all levels.

Looking at the film on its own merit, it’s clear that Dhont wants to make a film that is sympathetic to its central character, and he goes a long way to subvert the types of story beat that are usually prevalent in films such as this. Here, Lara is not fighting for the approval and acceptance of her ballet school peers, instead the conflict is an internal one; Lara’s frustration against a lengthy transition via hormone therapy. There are still a few external obstacles for Lara to overcome throughout the story: for instance, Lara’s treatment by her fellow students escalate from microaggressions to a point where she is harassed and pressured into a humiliating act by her female schoolmates during a slumber party. These transphobic acts are not brushed over, and while there’s no moment of triumph over her abusers, Lara is never made out to be a pitiable victim of society either - that’s not what this story is about.

Girl is Lara’s story - and only hers - from beginning to end. The film feels deeply personal and, to the filmmakers’ credit, Lara’s life outside of the dance studio is made to feel as mundane as that of stereotypical adolescent life: romantic interests, fitting in with the in crowd, and being thoroughly embarrassed by parents. The use of handheld cameras throughout by Dhont and cinematographer Frank van den Eeden helps to reinforce that sense of everyday, normal life. Victor Polster, for all of the controversy surrounding his casting, gives a very engaging and honest performance as Lara. His previous experience as a dancer helps to sell the film’s ballet scenes, but the largeness and physicality he displays there gives way to something far smaller and nuanced when events move beyond the dance studio. It’s a very mature performance for newcomer Polster, and while the question of whether his role should have gone to a transgender performer remains valid, it does somewhat undermine what he achieves here.

Unfortunately, for all of the empathy and humanity that Polster gives Lara in his performance, Girl’s climactic sequence threatens to diminish the film to a single shocking moment. The film up to this point deals with the issue of self-harm in ways that could be seen as problematic - Dhont seems to categorise it with the injuries sustained during Lara’s ballet class, however - but the act of violence with which this story culminates is so graphic that it overshadows everything that came before. It’s a narrative decision that is discordant with the rest of the film and does nothing but alienate its central character, and ultimately may do more harm than good for Girl’s intention to portray Lara as an empathetic figure.

Where Girl fits in the long and continuing timeline of LGBTQ+ cinema remains to be seen, and there’s certainly credit due to filmmakers making films which tell the stories of trans people. Lukas Dhont’s debut does warrant praise in that regard, but for a film made by an ally, and in collaboration with the person from whom the story takes inspiration, the inclusion of such othering sequences as in its climax suggest there’s still a long way to go for trans representation in film.

Review by Simon Whitlock

Girl. Belgium/Netherlands 2018. Directed by Lukas Dhont. Starring Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter...

Girl is released in the UK on the 15th of March

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