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‘I don’t want to be an ‘example’ – I want to be a girl.” These are the emotional words of Lara, a young trans woman who dreams of being a ballerina and is about to transition surgically, speaking to her dad who has well-meaningly congratulated Lara on her exemplary courage. Lara doesn’t want this representative burden. But she’s got it anyway. Perhaps the film itself, a feature debut from director and co-writer Lukas Dhont, has placed it on this fictional character’s slender shoulders.
She is transitioning at a uniquely difficult time. At 15, Lara is not just going through puberty but is also on probation at one of Belgium’s most prestigious ballet schools. If she does not do sufficiently well in classes, she can be asked to leave. The school talks about her “making up arrears”, meaning making up for lost time in dance instruction, but perhaps also, ambiguously or subconsciously, in femininity. Lara is auditioning to be a girl. She has to satisfy the authorities she can master the choreography of femaleness.
Casting a cisgender actor in the lead arguably makes the film vulnerable to charges of inauthenticity, but I think Victor Polster gives an outstanding performance as Lara. Her face and body are always being offered to the camera in closeup for inspection, rather like Lara’s reflection presented to her own gaze in the mirror – and, again, I don’t share the view that her physicality here has been fetishised or eroticised. Lara’s face seems nearly luminous with certainty and calm; she speaks in a gentle voice, almost a murmur.
Her current situation, however fraught, is a victory. She has won the argument – if it has been an argument – both about being a dancer and transitioning. Her family have moved to this new city at least partly to follow Lara’s ballet dream: to enrol in this prestigious academy. She has a caring dad, Mathias (an intelligent, sympathetic performance from Arieh Worthalter) and a little brother Milo (Oliver Bodart), though her mother is no longer around. She also has a sensitive counsellor (Valentijn Dhaenens) to guide her in these final weeks, and a similarly supportive doctor (Katelijne Damen) to take her through the details of surgery and its possible complications. These are challenging, to say the least.
Dhont shows us that Lara is under severe pressure. She won’t shower with everyone else after class, and so has got herself in the dysfunctional post-dance habit of locking herself in a toilet and thirstily slurping water from a tap, and opening the window and gasping for air. And there is a micro-crisis of protocol around every corner. After she has introduced herself to her fellow pupils in regular lessons, Lara is asked by her teacher to close her eyes, and the class is asked to raise their hands if any object to Lara using female changing areas. For a tiny, breath-holding moment, we wonder if Lara will herself object. Is this a transphobic insult? Or just another difficulty to be finessed? When Lara quarrels with Milo, he uses her old name (“Victor”) – deadnames her – and the insult sours the whole day. But Polster shows us Lara’s secret, triumphant smile when a helper at Milo’s kindergarten asks if she is his sister.
The problem is with the dance classes themselves, in which Lara must conform to the girliest conception of girlhood there is: concepts of femininity to which most teenage girls need not submit. And the one person who certainly does not intend to police her own language for possible transphobia is her demanding dance teacher, played by the real-life Belgian choreographer Marie-Louise Wilderijckx. She criticises Lara’s feet and says crisply that the ends of these cannot just be lopped off. She is otherwise kindly enough, but this crack causes Lara to hate her feet and she pushes herself dangerously hard in class.
So the awful truth dawns. Did any teacher, counsellor or parent ever warn Lara about this? Here is the female birthright. Here is what Lara has signed up for. Whether she realised it or not, this is it, amplified by the ballet regime: body issues, eating issues, misogynistically licensed guilt and shame, an endless fear of not looking good, not coming up to scratch. The problems of not being accepted as a girl are very great. But so are the problems of being accepted as a girl.
Opinions may divide about the climax of the film, whether it creates an unnecessarily problematised narrative, despite the note of realist optimism on which it finishes. The sheer sustained intensity of the drama and performances carry it through.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Girl review – trans teenager dreams of a dancer’s life | Drama films