When the film was presented in Cannes in 2018, the applause at the end of the press screening was long and warm. A standing ovation greeted the director and performers, who were in the room. Director Lukas Dhont, who was just 27 years old when he made this first short film, and Victor Polster, the extraordinary young actor who played Lara, were visibly moved. The judges of the Un Certain Regard review, with president Benicio del Toro, were also in the room. These judges then conferred the award for the best actor on Victor Polster and awarded the film the Caméra d’Or for best first feature film.
The film is intense and describes with sensitivity and effectiveness the determination and suffering of a young fifteen-year-old transitioning from male to female. We appreciate the very plausible dialogues between this teenager, determined to become a ballet dancer, and the sensitive father who accompanies his child on this coming-of-age and -self path that requires persistence and patience; it portrays the relationships between Lara and her little brother, her fellow students at the dance school, and her psychologist similarly.
The viewer clearly perceives all the discomfort and desire to feel good in one’s own skin, to follow a passion – dance – and to have a love life. All the bitterness of looking in the mirror and looking for the signs of a physical transition that is slow to manifest outwardly, while head and heart are already far ahead. All the desperation of a difference that one would like to eliminate with a clean blow. Instead, it takes time: Lara, whom we have known since the beginning of the film as the slender girl with long blonde hair who takes the entrance exam for the ballet school, is following a path with psychological and hormonal support that requires months of commitment before decisive surgery is possible.
In the meantime, however, life goes on: Lara is admitted to the dance academy, she discovers that her male body must be trained hard to achieve a certain flexibility, hides her penis under bandages and plasters, arouses the curiosity of her companions, feels attracted to a neighbour. And she becomes impatient to escape this hybrid situation, where her body does not support her being a woman.
The film opens with stretching exercises, an evident sign of a situation that requires the ability to stretch “beyond”, to broaden one’s boundaries, to reach with commitment for a result. Discipline and will are not lacking in Lara, who over the course of the film applies herself assiduously to dance training, in a crescendo, until she reaches exhaustion. The scenes of the repeated rehearsals, with an ever more intense rhythm, with a rotating movement that looks like a centripetal whirlpool and instead produces a force that eventually throws her out, portraying her as increasingly exhausted and at the limits of her strength. Lara persists, and her stubbornness translates into a kind of rigidity – just the thing she should move away from in dance and which requires a lot of training – and an introversion that undermine her deeply.
At a certain point she has to stop training and settle for attending the final performance as a spectator, waiting to recover and be able to undergo surgery.
Without revealing the epilogue of the story, we underline again the director’s ability to restore the relationship between Lara and her father with psychological finesse, an affectionate and vigilant supporter of his daughter in her life decisions; to trigger a reflection of how others see us, the image of ourselves that we want to project (Lara is often presented through reflections, seen through mirrors); what we are and what we want to become.
Dhont has the merit of telling it as it is in a direct way – both Lara and her father go in this direction as characters, and the conversations with the doctors are very clear as well – without depriving the viewer of the possibility of getting excited. Beautiful proof of the director’s skill and a superb performance from the actor.
The standing ovation was deserved that day and we would like to see it happen at every screening.
In addition to receiving awards at the Cannes Film Festival, Girl received Golden Globes nomination, 3 nominations and 1 prize at the European Film Awards, 1 nomination for a Cesar, and 1 nomination for a Goya.