The ‘tender and heart-wrenching’ drama debut by Lukas Dhont is ‘one of the most agonisingly well-observed films about being an adolescent that I’ve ever seen,’ writes Nicholas Barber.

Lara, the 15-year-old heroine of Girl, has just enrolled in a prestigious ballet school, an environment where everything that’s challenging about being a teenager becomes 10 times more difficult: the awareness that your body is developing in ways you might not like; the sense that there is an in-crowd that you can’t quite penetrate; the fear that you aren’t good enough, however hard you try; the irritation with well-meaning family members who don’t understand you. What magnifies these insecurities further is that Lara is a transitioning transgender girl, counting the days until she can have gender reassignment surgery, so she is even more self-conscious about her physique than her classmates are.

One of the most agonisingly well-observed films about being an adolescent that I’ve ever seen

This triple-whammy – puberty, ballet training and gender confusion – is what makes Girl so heart-wrenching. The tender debut drama from Belgian director and co-writer Lukas Dhont isn’t just an important and humane film about being a trans teen, but one of the most agonisingly well-observed films about being an adolescent that I’ve ever seen. 

Considering how momentous the changes in Lara’s life are, though, Girl is quiet and subtle, with no shocking twists or grandstanding speeches, with a soft-spoken protagonist, beautifully underplayed by Victor Polster, who prefers to keep her churning emotions to herself. Most of its scenes are so naturalistic they could have been lifted from a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Rather than contriving a conventional movie plot for Lara, Dhont simply invites us to watch her as she goes to her gruelling dance classes, chats to her single father (Arieh Worthalter) and her six-year-old brother (Oliver Bodart) in their cramped flat and consults a doctor and a therapist about when she might be ready for her operation. 

One affecting aspect of the film is how kind and reassuring all of these people are. No one ever asks when Lara knew she was a girl, or if she should go through with her surgery. The one and only time we hear her former name – Victor – is when her brother blurts it out during a tantrum. “It’s all good,” her father says – and he seems to have a point. Lara is pursuing her dream career, she has the support of a network of caring professionals and loving relatives (although her absent mother isn’t mentioned) and she endures a minimum of transphobic abuse. The one instance of overt harassment, from the class’s queen bee at a birthday sleepover, is painful to watch, but the teasing is well within the usual parameters of teenage bullying. In fact, the only obvious obstacle on Lara’s path to fulfilment is her habit of using sticky tape to hide her genitals between her legs. Her doctor reminds her that this could cause an infection, and delay the operation she yearns for, but she can’t stop doing it.

Anyone who remembers being a teenager will be moved

That, in itself, is a touchingly astute detail. Most of us are irrational enough to do things that aren’t in our best interests, especially when we’re unhappy adolescents. Her feet are a kind of chart on which her suffering is written. She takes her ballet shoes off repeatedly in the film, and each time her toes are more bloody and bruised, not because of any major injury, but because of a steady, continuous accrual of damage. It’s the same with the rest of her life. A traditional, sensationalist film might have had her being beaten up or sworn at, but Dhont’s nuanced argument is that it’s the countless barely perceptible humiliations and pressures which make her existence so stressful: the overkill of the aunts at a party who queue up to tell her how pretty she is, the twerking and flirting of her schoolmates as she stands shyly nearby. The tightly framed camerawork emphasises that there is nowhere for Lara to escape to, while the quick-fire editing makes her struggles seem exhaustingly relentless. Anyone who remembers being a teenager will be moved by her ordeal, and nervous about where it might lead. And anyone who is unsympathetic towards trans people might learn something.

That’s my view, anyway. Critics have condemned Girl both for starring a cisgender actor and for paying too much attention to Lara’s genitalia, among other parts of her body. The casting question deserves an article of its own, but the latter objection seems unfair. At heart, Girl is a coming-of-age film and any serious drama that didn’t acknowledge its pubescent characters’ fascination with their reproductive organs would be a fairy tale. It’s also worth noting that the film was inspired by an actual trans dancer, Nora Monsecour, and she has stated that, whether or not the story is true to the feelings and experiences of every trans youth, it is definitely true to hers. Whatever your age and gender identity, it could well be true to yours, too.

★★★★★

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