There has been a fair bit of buzz surrounding Lukas Dhont’s debut film, Girl. The film screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d’Or award, for best first feature film, as well as the Queer Palm. The film was selected as the Belgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, although it did not make the shortlist. Critics such as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich gave the film a glowing review, stating that it was “arrestingly empathetic”. With all this critical praise and attention at festivals, it was hard not being intrigued by what all the fuss was about.

The film follows trans teenager Lara (played by cis actor Victor Polster who gives a good and very moving performance) who has recently enrolled at a new school in order to fulfil her dream of becoming a ballerina. Supported by her single father and little brother, Lara is also starting hormone therapy, and is looking to have sexual reassignment surgery. She struggles to fit into her class, feeling on the edge and never fully welcomed. In one scene the teacher asks Lara to shut her eyes, before asking the rest of the girls to put up their hands if they feel uncomfortable with Lara being in the changing room. We don’t see who puts up their hands, making the unknown, unbearable. During the ballet practices, Lara tucks her penis betwen her legs, taping it. We watch as she tears the tape off, leaving her skin red raw. Lara eagerly anticipates her surgery, but the taping process leads to an infection, resulting in a devastating climax.

There are some elements to Girl, that does deserve the praise it has been receiving. Polster gives a strong performance as Lara. He manages to say so much about this character’s inner turmoil with just his facial expression and his eyes. Despite being relatively new to the world of acting, Polster seems wise beyond his years and already very capable at playing the lead. Arieh Worthalter as Lara’s caring and understanding father, is worth another positive mention. And, there are so many beautiful moments where we simply watch Lara lost in the music, and dancing to express her true self, that we almost forgive this film for all of it’s faults.

I won’t lie, in a lot of ways, Girl feels very much like exploitation of the trans community; and one gets the sense that while Dhont most likely had good intentions, he certainly did not fully understand the community he was trying to represent. The film is borderline offensive, and perverse in the way it focuses so much on the graphic depiction of gender dysphoria and self-harm. Dhont seemed so caught up in focusing in on Lara’s taping of her genitals, and the mutilation, that the director forgets to make this character feel like a real person and not some freak show. Towards the end of the film, it becomes less about an inspiring tale of finding one’s own identity, and more of a body horror flick. As critic Cathy Brennan brilliantly stated, “Dhont’s portrayal of gender dysphoria is so focused on the genitals that he offers no insight into the psychological facets of trans girl’s psychology.”

The camera seems to linger on Lara’s lower body (especially her crotch area) as well as the other girls in Lara’s class, that it’s hard to ignore this sense that Dhont is clearly obsessed with the female form whether it be a CIS or a trans woman. Girl opens up a whole new debate on the role of the male gaze in these type of films. Should CIS directors really be the right people to tell these stories? Should CIS actors be the ones to depict transgender characters? On one hand, we should be celebrating the fact that films like Girl are finally being made and being shown on the big screen. On the other hand, it’s clear that there is still so much more we could be doing to ensure that the transgender community is represented better, and that transgender actors, writers and directors, are given more opportunities to work in the industry. Girl is a step in the right direction, but the journey to complete diversity and representation on screen is still a long and gruelling road ahead.

Directed by: Lukas Dhont
Cast: Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart