After a series of shorts, Belgian writer-director Lukas Dhont makes his directorial debut with Girl. Playing in Cannes last year in the Un Certain Regard strand, the film made an immediate impact, winning the Camera d’Or for best first feature. It’s since been nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Golden Globes (although it missed out at the Oscars). But not unlike The Danish Girl, another transgender story, the film has caused controversy for the casting of a cisgender actor – the excellent Victor Polster – in the lead.
While this is always going to be an issue that will divide audiences – not least after the success of A Fantastic Woman – what can be said is that Girl treats the subject of being transgender with great sensitivity. Scripted by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens, it follows 15 year-old Lara (Polster), who is preparing for sex reassignment surgery after being born in the body of a boy. Sessions with a psychiatrist and hormone treatment come as part and parcel of what is invariably a traumatic, emotional and life-changing experience.
Inspired by Nora Monsecour, a professional dancer and trans woman from Belgium, Dhont originally wanted to make a documentary about her, but she refused. Nevertheless, with Monsecour’s help (she remains uncredited on the film), he’s conjured up the script for Girl. As we see, Lara lives with her understanding father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), refreshingly portrayed as a parent who simply wants the best for his child, and younger brother Milo (Oliver Bodart).
The film begins with Lara having moved to a new city with her family, where she is able to study ballet at one of the country’s dance schools. Early on the dance teacher announces that Lara will use the girls’ changing room and if anyone has any issue they should speak up. It’s a humiliating moment, but Girl does not travel down the expected path where Lara gets bullied by her classmates. Most seem to accept her for who she is, despite some degree of curiosity. The problems are more internal, as Lara’s emotional state becomes increasingly turbulent when the hormone treatment begins to fail, and her body is pushed to its limits.
Girl opens on 15 March. Find out more here.