One-third of the movies competing in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival are first feature films; among these, one of the serious contenders for the Caméra d’Or is without doubt Girl, from the Belgian director Lukas Dhont. Although only twenty-seven years old, Dhont already knows his trade, what he aims to achieve with his movies and how to achieve it. In that way, he is similar to the character he gives life to in Girl: the fifteen-year-old Lara, who has a very clear idea of who she wants to be, and is ready to go all the way so as to turn that determination into a reality.
Born with the body and the name of a boy, Lara is transgender, and begins to undergo the hormonal and chirurgical treatment which will give her a woman’s body. At the same time, she enlists in a top-tier ballet school, to fulfil her dream of becoming a dancer. One of the strongest ideas of Girl, from which Dhont never deviates from beginning to end, is that each and every member of Lara’s entourage, both at home and at school, is fully supportive of her aspirations and efforts. Her family moved to another city with Lara so that she can attend the ballet school; her teachers throw her the same words of encouragement and criticism that they do with the other students; her father follows her treatment with great care, attending all her medical appointments and asking constructive questions. Much of the film’s strength comes from this harsh truth: all this support does not make Lara’s transition any easier. It just prevents it from getting any worse.
The path Lara is walking is an awfully difficult one, both mentally and physically. At one point she tells her father, “I don’t want to be an example, I want to be a girl” – but she cannot escape the fact that she is one of a kind, different from the majority of people. That turns her into an example, as she experiences the things that make adolescence difficult in an even more intense, violent way. The fear of being an outcast, rejected by the group; the hope of igniting love and desire in someone; and most of all the difficulty of coping with the transformations of your body, which suddenly seems to get a life of its own: this is true for all teenagers, but becomes the toughest of ordeals for Lara due to her gender transition.
Dhont catches with great delicacy the small bits of pain and joy paving Lara’s day-to-day life: her little brother calling her by her old name, a difficult dance step she finally manages to perform just the way the teacher wanted it done. The young director is so close emotionally to his young character, he feels and gets us to feel the way she does, via his filmmaking, at the same time subtle and powerful. Nevertheless, being close to Lara does not mean that Dhont makes the mistake of becoming oblivious to her mistakes and flaws. Like any typical teenager, Lara wants to get the things she strives for too quickly, too strongly, and by doing so she asks too much of herself and of the world around her. Her father notices it, stating she does not want to be a girl so much as to be a woman, already. She demands a new body, a new talent, a new love, on the spot. It is because of this teenage exaggeration, and not in any way because of Lara’s gender transition, that Girl becomes increasingly tragic, leading to an aching conclusion. Dhont handles this scene, and its subdued aftermath, with the same sensibility and talent as he did all throughout the movie. One can only hope he will go on this way many times more in the years to come.