Rarely has a foreign language film created as much debate and controversy as director Lukas Dhont’s Girl. The film follows Lara (Victor Polster) a 15-year-old transgender girl who dreams of being a professional ballerina. She attends a prestigious Dutch dance school where her classmates are hostile towards her and who are at times openly transphobic. Her father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and her doctors are supportive of her and her desire to have gender reassignment surgery, even if Lara is left frustrated by the slow progress of her treatment and the delays to her surgery.
At the film’s centre is a brave and committed performance from Victor Polster. Despite being a difficult role, he is always convincing and gives a point of contact for the audience to connect with. Lukas Dhont’s work behind the camera is very competent but it is the performance of Polster, and to a lesser extent the supporting cast, that carries the film forward. The duel pressures of the dance academy and her transition are clear to see and Polster adds a vulnerability and openness that gives the story an emotionally raw feel which highlights the importance of self-care.
Since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year Girl has been met by polarising reactions. Critics and jury members have praised it while members of the transgender community have had major reservations towards it, in particular the provocative ending. Film has the ability to open people’s minds to environments and experiences they weren’t previously aware of. Film critic Roger Ebert famously described cinema as “a machine that generates empathy” and at its best watching a film can expand and evolve our view of the world.
At the same time there is the chance that negative and ill-informed beliefs can be created or reinforced. There are plenty of examples of films that have helped spread damaging agendas and hate. The power of cinema to inspire can also be used to mislead. Girl has been accused of being fixated on Lara’s body and criticised for depicting hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment as a source of agony and trauma.
In response the dancer Nora Monsecour, who the film is loosely based on, has defended Girl saying it is “not a representation of all transgender experiences, but rather a retelling of experiences that I faced during my journey.” In an interview with The New York Times Monsecour described Girl as a beginning and said she was confident “that more trans people will their stories.”
The film industry is improving in regards to its depiction of minority groups. Girl is part of this shift and alongside films like A Fantastic Woman, Tangerine, and Tomboy is part of a growing catalogue of films that have represented transgender characters and communities. A lot of progress has been made since Dressed to Kill showed transgender characters to be dangerous and psychologically unstable. I believe that Girl is intended to increase empathy and understanding for the challenges transgender people face. Whether it is successful is very much up to the viewer.