Review: ‘Girl’ is a coming-of-age story based on metamorphosis

by Isabelle Blank | 9/28/18 2:05am

“Late at night my mind would come alive with voices and stories and friends as dear to me as any in the real world. I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation,” quips Winona Ryder as the enviable Jo March in the 1994 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic “Little Women.” Just as Alcott’s Jo sought to find her place in the world, so too does Lara of “Girl” strive to establish herself as a woman and artist. With “Girl,” Flemish director Lukas Dhont offers a more contemporary coming-of-age story whose plot turns on the very idea of self-driven metamorphosis.
“Girl,” a deceivingly simple title which contains multitudes, is the story of 15 year-old Lara, a transgender girl from Belgium who, like Jo March, longs for transformation. Lara does not only yearn to change her body, but wants more than anything to become a ballerina. The movie frames a period of major transition for Lara: she’s just moved to a new city, is living in a new apartment, is preparing for transition surgery and has begun training at the prestigious Royal Ballet School of Antwerp.

Mirroring a traditional ballet story, the movie’s script is essentially a two-character plot. At the center of the tale is the story of a father’s love and concern for his child, supported by a corps of party guests, doctors and fellow ballet students and teachers. If Lara and her pain are palpable, so too is her father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and his tenderness. Though Lara’s mind and body drive the plot of this film, her father’s heart is just as central. Supported by her family and by her doctors, Lara finds herself at war with her own body. She is not only an athlete grasping at perfectionism but also an individual born with the wrong body.

Breakout talent Victor Polster plays the role of Lara with delicacy and quiet intensity. Lara’s inner turmoil is evident in Polster’s subtle expressions of both mental and physical pain. A classically trained dancer, Polster performs the ballet scenes’ choreography with believable grace and precision. He stumbles where appropriate and whirls at dizzying speed throughout the dance sequences. How fitting that Lara should want to be a ballerina, would want to devote herself to a discipline not only of technique but of aesthetics: ballet is considered by many as the epitome of bodily feminine performance.

The audience bears witness to visceral scenes of Lara’s battle against her own body. We see Lara taping in between her legs before donning a leotard, refusing to eat at the dinner table, swallowing multiple hormone pills and peeling pointe shoes off of bleeding toes. In an early moment of foreshadowing, Lara pierces her own ears. There are scenes where Lara doesn’t speak, allowing her body the space to tell its own story. She stretches out on the studio floor, shoulder blades reaching up and away like the wings of a bird. Lara stands in front of her mirror for long stretches of time, pulling at her chest, twisting to see any sign of burgeoning breasts. Though the casting for the film was reportedly gender-blind, it helps to have a male actor playing the role of Lara as Polster yanks at his chest and wraps tape between his legs.

Lara fondles flaxen locks, tucking her hair behind her ears, pulling it against the nape of her neck for ballet class. In one humiliating moment, Lara is made to stand before her classmates and pull up her dress. The camera stays close to Lara’s body during her dancing scenes, so that the camera lens becomes the frenetic mirror of Lara’s own turbulent thoughts. Throughout the film, Lara’s body holds its own unflinching cinematic power.

Even in the most painful scenes, Dhont is careful never to overdramatize or sensationalize, and the script never veers in the direction of the melodramatic. If anything, there was too much restraint in the second half of the film, where Lara’s thoughts became almost impossible to read and the minimal dialogue and stinted conversations with her father did nothing to clear up the situation. However, after seeing the end of the film, the restraint exercised in the second half of the movie serves to temper the shock value of one gruesome moment. Despite some painful scenes, the overall message of the movie remains hopeful. At the end of the film, a Mona-Lisa smile spreads across Lara’s face as she walks up from the dirty subway underground into the outside sunlit cityscape. Gold discs swing from her self-pierced ears: she has conquered the liminal and emerged triumphant as wholly herself.

“Girl” proves an empathetic portrayal of a teen’s transgender experience. Anchored by the acting and dancing talent of Polster and the on-screen chemistry between Lara and her father, the script is a thoughtful meditation on transformation and the perils of self-destruction. If the second half of the movie at times feels repetitive or slow-moving, the pacing only serves to keep a shocking moment at the end of the film from being sensationalized or melodramatic. A film the audience may feel in their marrow, “Girl” leaves its viewers thinking about issues of identity, adolescence and sexuality long after the credits roll.