Berlinale 2023 review: 20,000 Species of Bees (Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren)

“A hauntingly beautiful and deeply pensive drama, this film is a truly extraordinary accomplishment and one that will undeniably help many navigate their own crises of identity.”

For every queer person, there comes a point in their life where they simply “know” – the moment when they realize that they are different. For some it happens earlier than others, which is the case for the young protagonist in 20,000 Species of Bees. In what is certain to be one of the most ambitious and celebrated feature debuts of the year, Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren weaves together a profoundly beautiful story about a young girl undergoing several changes, most notably making it clear to her family that she doesn’t quite feel like the person she is told to be. In what could be considered a spiritual successor to Víctor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive, another self-reflective coming-of-age drama set in pastoral Spain that uses bees as its central motif, this film is a triumph of contemporary queer cinema and bound to be an absolute sensation.

For anyone born into a culture steeped in very traditional and conservative values, the concepts at the heart of 20,000 Species of Bees will undoubtedly be very familiar. The confusion that emerges when describing your internal shift in identity by those who don’t quite understand it and insist that it is only a phase, is captured beautifully in every frame. The story is told mainly through the protagonist’s relationship with her mother and grandmother, two very different women who react to her questioning her identity in varying ways. The film vividly portrays how different generations perceive the changing world, and how they perceive and perform gender in different ways. Based around cross-generational interaction we see our protagonist (in an astonishing and heartbreakingly honest performance by the young Sofía Otero) make it clear that she doesn’t feel connected to the role they had given her, and instead is challenging her understanding of who she is inside, trying to connect her internal dialogue with her everyday life.

Developing into your identity is not a linear process, and for both the protagonist and her family it takes time to acclimate to these changes. Realizing that you do not quite fit in as preordained from the start is a challenging journey, and for many it remains a perpetual work in progress. This film shows a few key moments in a young person’s experiences in negotiating their identity, which is shown through simply asking questions but coming to terms with the fact that those around us may not have all the answers. 20,000 Species of Bees captures this by showing the beauty contained within the smallest moments, the conversations that may not be enormously impactful on their own but are woven into the tapestry of one’s burgeoning identity. They are the small moments that don’t usually mean much immediately, but rather come to form the foundation for an individual’s self-acceptance and willingness to live openly later in life, crucial formative experiences that mean much more than words could ever describe.

Urresola Solaguren challenges and provokes conventions in a way that is actively quite profound, by her examination of this young individual simply asking to wear a dress to an upcoming family event or to be referred to by a different name rather than the male-aligned name she was assigned at birth, small moments of quiet rebellion, explored in vivid and beautiful detail. It proves to be a thoughtful meditation that offers a glimpse into the mind of someone navigating their inner identity and trying to have it become part of their everyday life, rather than just keeping it contained. It is a slow-burning, quiet character study that is superbly well-directed (particularly in how it captures the tranquil beauty of the summer-soaked Basque Country) and performed beautifully by the cast, consisting of both newcomers and veterans. As we see in the striking final act of the film, where “Lucía” is finally born into the world after being able to wear the dress she asked for, we all yearn to see our true selves reflected when we look in the mirror. A hauntingly beautiful and deeply pensive drama, this film is a truly extraordinary accomplishment and one that will undeniably help many navigate their own crises of identity.

(c) Image copyright: Gariza Films, Inicia Films