One of two stories about a struggling ballerina and one of many, many foreign films there, "Girl" was one of those films that passed under the radar at this year's Telluride Film Festival. From Belgium and first-time director Lukas Dhont, it's a film tackling LGBT issues in a freshly subdued, but no less personal way.
Though it's based on a real person influential to Dhont, the metaphor for physical identity change taken through ballet is as genius as it is harrowing. Practicing ballet requires a constant, often bloody gradience of change until one can accomplish movements not feasible by the standard body. Dhont takes a very personal approach to capturing Lara's change, using close-ups as a means of forcing one to look at Lara's mangling body. A frequent use of mirrors and, at the same time, the closeness of the ballet choreography's cinematography warms one to Lara's dedication while an occasional, subtle onset of shakiness puts one near her crumbling id and ego.
It's praiseworthy how restrained Dhont approaches Lara's journey. Dead set on confirming her identity through surgery despite the physical risks tacked on by her career aspirations, her story is purely internal, not external, however you take it, and this lighter touch makes for really good, really smart explorations of Lara's conflicted psyche. The rest of the world-her father, classmates, teachers, neighbors-seldom questions Lara's femininity. It's almost only her. This different take on identity issues works arguably better than the showier, bombastic angle usually taken by films of this ilk, building empathy through warmth and intimacy rather than in-your-face demonstrations and outrage.
Well, that's save for three very obvious scenes relying on (varying degrees of) shock value that ruin this near universal acceptance of Lara. The ongoing internal, not external, conflict is contradicted by these three moments that, while effective, downplay Dhont's powerful running message.
A massive lull that arrives in the middle and carries all the way to the end also hurts the film's overall impression. "Girl" gets very repetitive as Lara's injuries manifest over and over in similar ways, and while Victor Polster's performance is strong throughout, the film's lack of change or growth in its back half severely limits its final impact.
Lukas Dhont and Victor Polster make striking first impressions in "Girl", a painfully personal portrait of a maturing young person. Though narratively weak for a long, overwrought second half, it's a mostly well-constructed story of empathy and self-acceptance.