The only film in the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection that is eligible for both the Caméra d’Or for the festival’s best first feature and the Queer Palm award for the best gay-themed film, “Girl” is a bold entry into the international arena for a 26-year-old Belgian director, Lukas Dhont.
It is a quiet movie until it isn’t, a gentle character study that goes into extreme territory, a wrenching drama that you think is about finding acceptance until it threatens to become about the impossibility of that very thing.
The film, which premiered to a lengthy ovation in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section on Thursday, begins as softly as it can, with placid music and a whisper from her little brother to wake up 15-year-old Lara, an aspiring ballet student who’s trying to get into a top dance academy.
The admissions offer explains that while she’s undeniably talented, Lara is at least three years behind other students in the training it takes to dance en pointe, on her toes, but the academy will give her an eight-week tryout. What goes unspoken — but is not a secret to the school or its students — is that Lara was born a boy, and is undergoing hormone treatment in preparation for eventual gender confirmation surgery.
Lara, played by the remarkable young dancer and actor Victor Polster after Dhont auditioned both males and females for the role, is always looking in the mirror and never liking what she sees: Her breasts aren’t growing, and against the wishes of her doctors and father, she continues to painfully tape down her genitals before donning the underwear that’s designed to hide it without tape.
Her classmates seemingly accept Lara as a girl, with the other aspiring ballerinas even encouraging her to shower with them. But the impossibility of her dream, which is based on a real case that Dhont read about, becomes clearer as the film goes on. Ballet training is already brutal enough on a teenage body; when you throw in the hormone treatments and the strength required for the surgery, Lara is facing a brutal reality.
And so the film, which usually relies on understatement and restraint, gradually grows darker. “I don’t want to be an example,” says Lara at one point. “I just want to be a girl.” And that’s how the film treats her, up to the point where being a girl becomes increasingly complicated by well-meaning friends and by Lara herself, as what she sees in the mirror never matches what she wants to be.
Lara keeps telling everybody that she’s OK, but we know she’s not — and by the end, this quiet movie goes to a place of horrific pain and desperation. That Dhont manages to find the briefest of grace notes in its aftermath is one more reason why “Girl” is one of the true discoveries of this year’s festival.