A deeply involving portrait of a boy in transition to becoming a girl.


Victor Polster


A special attribute of cinema is its ability to make audiences empathise when telling stories about people or places remote from the viewer's experience. Lukas Dhont's first feature, Girl, is a striking example of that. Written by Dhont with Angelo Tijssens, it sets out to tell the tale of a teenager living in Belgium. At the outset this youth, played by Victor Polster, has already reached the stage at which, taking hormone treatment and awaiting an operation in due course, he dresses as a woman and calls himself Lara. It is, I think, a stroke of genius that Dhont has made Lara a would-be ballet dancer who is a pupil at an academy. There is a link between this and the trans issue in that most ballerinas would have started pointe work at the age of twelve and the fact that Lara at fifteen has only now come to dancing makes it difficult for her feet to adjust. But the essential point here is that by making Lara's story in part that of a dance student Dhont enables the audience to identify easily with her endeavours in that regard - and that identification helps viewers to share readily the hopes and aspirations of Lara in all respects. Consequently, for the audience she never feels like a person apart, even though as a person undergoing a sex change she may be in a special category.


Lara is living with her father (Arieh Worthalter) and her much younger brother (Oliver Bodart) and Dhont presents Lara as somebody whose father is very understanding and supportive. Indeed, three scenes between the two of them are highlights of the film (one of them shows that such rapport cannot always exclude tensions, but the other two are wonderful illustrations of their bond). At the same time, Girl never hides the difficulties that can arise for Lara. Without any false sense of dramatisation at least two episodes - one in the academy and the other involving Lara's female friends - make us share the feeling of humiliation experienced by Lara.


There is a sense of almost documentary realism here and the excellent performances by Polster and Worthalter play to that. If the subject prompts thoughts of another film about a transsexual, 2017's A Fantastic Woman, it is apt to mention two elements here that mark out a different approach. First, Girl is far more ready to confront sexual details directly (it includes shots to confirm that Lara's penis is thus far intact and there is a sex scene involving Lara and a boy who is a neighbour played by Tijmen Govaerts). Secondly, whereas the wonderful star of A Fantastic Woman, Daniela Vega, was trans, Victor Polster is not. However, his performance is so persuasive and sympathetic that I can only support his casting despite criticisms of it made by some who believe that a trans player should have been used.


If the above suggests to the reader a five-star review, I can only confirm that it does and, if a slight shortening of the rehearsal scenes in the dancing academy might have been useful, that hardly reduces the film's impact. However, Girl leads to an unexpected climax, one that a critic should not reveal but which on this occasion seems to me to be a move that goes entirely against the grain of this enterprise and of what the film sets out to achieve. That seriously undermines the film as well as making the final short scene appear hopelessly unrealistic, but nothing can conceal the fact that for most of the time Girl is remarkable. 




Cast: Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Magali Elali, Alice de Broqueville, Alain Honorez, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens.


Dir Lukas Dhont, Pro Dirk Impens, Screenplay Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens, Ph Frank van den Eeden, Art Dir Philippe Bertin, Ed Alain Dessauvage, Music Valentin Hadjadj, Costumes Cathérine van Bree.


Menuet/Frakas Productions/Topkapi Films/Nederlands Filmfonds/Casa Kafka Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
106 mins. Belgium/The Netherlands. 2018. Rel: 15 March 2019. Cert. 15.