Sébastien Lifshitz’s “Little Girl,” a documentary about a 7-year-old transgender girl in France named Sasha, has the feel and texture of a contemplative narrative feature. Lifshitz envelops Sasha and her family in a sort of visual cocoon, as if to cradle them, shooting them in gentle afternoon light when they’re outside and in protective shadows when they are inside their house. His touch here is so delicate that it makes most American talking-heads documentaries look particularly crude and formulaic by comparison.
Lifshitz has made some narrative features, including the memorably erotic “Come Undone” with Stéphane Rideau and “Wild Side,” in which he was ahead of the curve in 2004 with casting a transgender actor, Stéphanie Michelini, in a transgender leading role, but he has focused in recent years on documentaries. It was while making “Bambi,” a portrait of the 1950s Parisian trans dancer and showgirl Marie-Pierre Pruvot, that Lifshitz became curious about the childhoods of trans people after Pruvot told him that she knew about herself from the age of 3 or 4.
Lifshitz put out a call for parents of a young trans child, and he eventually found Sasha and her family, who were tentative at first but very quickly adopted Lifshitz and his small crew into their life together. Sasha’s mother Karine was at the end of her rope about helping her daughter at school when Lifshitz contacted her, and he shows a scene here of Karine talking to a family doctor who clearly has no experience with the issue. (This doctor asks Karine if she really wanted a girl when she was pregnant with Sasha).
The director connected Karine with a sensitive female doctor who specializes in cases like this, and he patiently films a key scene where Karine and Sasha talk to this doctor about the problems Sasha is having at her school. When physical bullying is mentioned, Sasha’s face is at first fully armored, as if she doesn’t remember it, but very gradually some tears start to form behind her eyes, and we can see the build-up of emotion that she is fighting.
Sasha stays like that for a very long time, the tears just held back and held back and held back until finally she has to give in to them; when her dignified little face finally crumples and Sasha starts to really cry, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by her pain and particularly by her valiant struggle to suppress it.
Lifshitz was not given access to Sasha’s school, and so we only hear things about the intolerant religious principal. Many of the other students are accepting of her; it’s the adults who are the main problem. We do see some footage of Sasha in a ballet class with little girls in tutus as she attempts to fit in with them, even though she is dressed in a shirt and pants, and these glimpses of her in the dance school lead up to an even more upsetting scene later in the film.
Karine and Sasha sit again in the child psychiatrist’s office, and Karine says that the Russian ballet teacher physically pushed Sasha out of the classroom when Karine told her to treat Sasha as a girl: “We don’t have things like this in Russia,” the teacher said. Imagining this scene of Sasha getting pushed out of the dance class and bursting into tears of grief is far worse than actually seeing it would be. As Karine talks about this horrible moment, Sasha’s face is armored again. Everyone needs armor like this to get through life, but some people are forced to create far more of it than others.
In spite of these very painful scenes, “Little Girl” is suffused with the unconditional love that Sasha’s family feels for her and for each other. At one point, Karine talks to her son Vassily about feeling guilty that she doesn’t have as much time to spend on him because of the fight she is always having to wage for Sasha, and Vassily says that he understands. This is a portrait of a very particular situation, but it’s also about resilience and the mysteries of how from-scratch childhood personalities are formed.
“Little Girl” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 17.