Intimate observations drive much of Director Sébastien Lifshitz’s moving documentary, Little Girl. We first meet seven-year-old Sasha in her bedroom as she carefully selects an outfit. Toying with different accessories, her brow furrows with concentration as she smooths down her dress and cycles through a variety of headbands. Despite being born a male, Sasha has known she is actually a girl since the age of four. No stranger to making films about the LGBTQ+ experience (Wild Side, Bambi, Open Bodies), Lifshitz strikes the perfect balance between showing and telling in his heartfelt exploration of a trans child’s journey towards their full identity.
Surrounded by a loving and supportive family, Sasha’s parents speak of wanting their child to be happy, with their decision to embrace her transition a simple honoring of that desire. Sasha’s siblings are similarly amenable, acting as educators to their friends and those around them. Yet even with familial acceptance, there are challenges. The world outside the inviting countryside home the family resides in is a harsh one. A trip to Paris to visit a psychiatrist specializing in gender dysphoria reveals a battle against Sasha’s school, who refuses to acknowledge her correct identity. It’s importantly pointed out by Sasha’s mother, Karine, that with the adults at the school failing to address her properly, getting Sasha’s peers to treat her with respect feels improbable.
As the psychiatrist prompts her to speak about her experiences at school, the camera lens rests predominantly on Sasha’s face, as opposed to a wider shot of the room and its occupants. Sasha gives an initial assurance that no one at school has ever pushed her, but is challenged by her mother, Karine, who explains that her daughter doesn’t like to tell people the truth of what happens to her. The close framing of Sasha creates a profound bond between her and the viewer in a manner that avoids the voyeuristic and instead makes us feel connected to her very core; particularly as her small features traverse a range of emotions in acknowledging her pain.
In addition to the titular little girl, Karine also serves as an emotional center for the film with the majority of direct-to-camera interaction provided by her. While accepting her child for who she is is a huge step, Little Girl reminds us that sadly this is only the first. Karine now serves as a warrior for Sasha, not just advocating for her in the way a parent must for a child; but also shouldering the transphobia displayed towards Sasha and sharing in her anguish. The film also further explores the mother-child relationship through Karine’s feelings of guilt due to her wish to have a girl when carrying Sasha and subsequent wondering if this influenced her being trans.
Sasha’s transition and resulting fight to express herself to the world is told in a heartbreaking, yet realistic fashion. In documenting this process, Lifshitz deftly balances verbally dense scenes like the psychiatrist’s office with instances of Sasha playing with her family or at ballet class. Again, the ethereal cinematography by Paul Guilhaume proves a real strength, with the snapshots adding tenderness to the piece, allowing the audience to see Sasha in moments of happiness and authenticity. This skillful blending of light and heavy periods ensures Sasha is presented as the multi-layered, self-aware individual she is, even at her young age.
A stirring and well-crafted documentary, Little Girl cares deeply for its subject and tells Sasha’s story in a way that is unflinching, yet still reflects the beauty of a child forging true self, despite the obstacles. While Sasha’s life and the decisions she’ll have to make in the future are intensely personal, through Little Girl’s thoughtful portrait, Lifshitz gives us a poignant insight that we’re immensely grateful to receive.