Girl first look: a touching portrait of a transgender ballet dancer

Lukas Dhont’s debut feature is a breathtakingly empathetic tale of a young woman struggling to be at peace in her body, with a breakout performance from Victor Polster.

Katherine McLaughlin

Web exclusive

Victor Polster as Lara in Girl

Victor Polster as Lara in Girl

Lukas Dhont’s astonishing debut feature is a quietly powerful and nuanced trans rite-of-passage story about a girl born in a boy’s body. Dhont reportedly struck up a friendship with a 15-year-old Belgian girl called Nora after reading a newspaper article about her transition and hopes of becoming a ballerina. Impressed by Nora’s confidence, he uses her story as a leaping-off point for a sensitive character portrait.

Co-written with Angelo Tijssens, this is an elegant and poised piece of transgender cinema with a breakout performance from Victor Polster. Lara is firm in her decision to change her body; she has been taking puberty inhibitors and attending counselling sessions to prepare for the lengthy hormone-altering process and eventual operation. There’s a strong support system in place for her, with her compassionate father accompanying her to doctor’s appointments and encouraging her passion for ballet. His progressive outlook is akin to that of Elio’s father in Call Me By Your Name, with their interactions warm, playful and deeply affectionate. Simply put, he’s a father who wants the best for his child.

The family unit, comprised of dad, daughter and little brother Milo, have recently relocated to further Lara’s pursuit of dance at a prestigious ballet academy. When we first meet them they are a glowing brood of hope and love. The tender way Lara cradles her brother as he wakes her up in the opening scene is drenched in natural light that complements Polster’s long golden hair and striking pale complexion. It’s never explained where her mum is and that’s one of the refreshing aspects of the way Dhont approaches his film: there’s no desire to spell things out. He uses movement, colour and expressions to convey Lara’s inner life.

Girl (2018)

A ballerina’s life is steeped in routine, and Lara needs to catch up with her peers to stay in school so embarks on a testing one-to-one mentorship as well as normal group training sessions. The girls and boys in her class appear to accept Lara as she is but as the stakes are upped with an end of term performance, when competitive personalities emerge and insidious bullying begins. It all takes its toll on Lara and as her mental and physical state declines the gorgeous golden hues disappear. We see her symptoms: the battered, bloody toes, dangerous weight loss, harmful taping-up of genitals and self-loathing. Nevertheless, she persists in her dream of inhabiting the body she feels comfortable in.

At one point Lara exclaims, “I don’t want to be an example. I want to be a girl.” Dhont follows this sentiment by drawing out affecting moments from characters who brim with complex emotions. Up-close shots of Lara’s face as she dances reveal impressive determination at points, and at others the tears that reflect her fragile state of pain and frustration. So much is said without words here, but the empathy the filmmaker has for all his characters speaks volumes.


Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.