Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont makes his directorial debut in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes with Girl, a sympathetic and emotionally rich portrait of a 15-year-old girl, born in the body of a boy, who has aspirations of becoming a ballet dancer.
Taking on the role of Lara is 15-year-old cisgender actor Victor Polster. A trained dancer, Polster offers a compelling performance, expressing the internal conflicts of the character in graceful movements and glances rather than through dialogue. Lara has recently moved into a small apartment in Belgium with her little brother and father after transferring to one of Belgium’s most prestigious dance schools. At the same time, she is also going through hormonal treatment in preparation for gender reassignment surgery.
Lara’s counsellor, who is guiding her through the process, reminds her to enjoy the moment and not worry about her body because she is already a woman – yet Lara remains unconvinced. She continually examines herself in the mirror, feeling for any signs that her breasts are growing. She straps up her groin with the same tape that she uses to protect her feet in ballet, and we watch as she painfully removes it after each dance class. All she wants is to be a girl in every sense, and while willing to do what she must, she is impatient.
The film expertly navigates Lara’s internal and external worlds, using ballet – a dance form well-known for the damage it can do to a young teen’s body – as a parallel to Lara’s experience of physically becoming a woman. It’s a deft trick, but through external characters, we are always reminded that she is already a woman, even if Lara herself still doesn’t feel confident in her own body. Importantly, Dhont doesn’t fall for the clichés of what has, in recent years, become a popular subject matter, even breaking into the mainstream with The Danish Girl – which it would be a disservice to compare Girl too.
Dhont illustrates that, while Lara’s experience may be seen as extraordinary, it is also a journey that bears similarities to the discomfort and emotional turmoil of all teens who are learning about who they are while beginning to chase their dreams. Girl is an extraordinarily moving film and, after a standing ovation from a rapturous Cannes crowd, both Dhont and Polster undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh