Friday 12 October 2018

Girl (Lukas Dhont, 2018)

Girl, Belgium's entry for the Oscars, is a sincere and affecting tale which successfully captures the turmoil experienced by 15-year-old Lara.  Screen portrayals of teenage angst are nothing new, but in Lara's case there's an added complication in that she was born a boy and is currently awaiting sex reassignment surgery.  Actually, there's yet another complication: Lara wants to be a ballerina, and the gruelling classes she endures cause serious damage to her feet.  But if you think watching Lara nurse her bloodied toes is grim, you ain't seen nothing yet; late on, Girl features a scene which may have you bolting for the exit, or at the very least watching through your fingers.

Lara lives with her incredibly supportive father and much younger brother; her family life is generally pleasant, plus she's pretty much accepted by her peers at school.  As such, two potential (and predictable) lines of major conflict are snuffed out from the off.  Lara's battle is mainly with herself; she's incredibly tough on her body, in almost every sense, and the added stress of the punishing dance sessions leads to a situation where she's no longer in sufficiently good condition for surgery.  Oh, Lara, why couldn't have looked after yourself a bit better?  Then we could all have avoided that scene.

Girl is by no means the first film to focus on a transgender character, and in recent times we've had the likes of the sublime Laurence Anyways as well as Oscar-winners The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club.  With these films still fairly fresh in the memory, Girl struggles to turn up much which feels especially new, although it is a very assured debut by director Lukas Dhont.  The film features a terrific, unshowy central performance from Victor Polster, whose cisgender status hopefully won't distract from his knockout turn here.  Lara is very likeable, and it's sad to see someone who people warm to being so hard on themselves.  Despite being surrounded by people who care for her - irrespective of what gender Lara may be - this fierce internal war destroys virtually all the happiness in the teen's life, and leaves her feeling extremely isolated.  It's most painful to watch.

While large chunks of Girl feel like stuff we've all seen before, it's important not to overlook how helpful the film could be to those in similar situations; while there's much to admire about Lara, her misjudged methods serve to make Girl a cautionary tale.  It's a bold, heartfelt piece of filmmaking, and it screens at the London Film Festival tomorrow and on Monday.

Darren Arnold