Though spending a week in Karlovy Vary can give you much-needed distance from America’s 24-hour news cycle, even I couldn’t escape the outraged headlines regarding Scarlett Johansson being cast as a transgender man in an upcoming movie. These cries of protest will never die down until Hollywood becomes truly inclusive across the board, and that’s as it should be. What’s ironic is that Johansson has already headlined a film—Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”—that was brilliantly interpreted by critic Willow Maclay as a transgender allegory. In a perfect world, Johansson should be able to accept any role she pleases without an uproar, but as Trace Lysette noted via Twitter, if trans actresses were getting considered for cis roles, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem. I was reminded of a conversation I had a couple summers ago with Jeannette Jennings, mother of teenage trans activist Jazz Jennings, at a publicity event in Chicago. When I asked how she felt about trans performers not being cast as transgender characters, she replied, “Transgender actors should be able to play any role they want.” I couldn’t agree more. Representation in all areas should be the ultimate goal, rather than limiting the types of roles an actor can play—or the types of films a critic can review—on the basis of their identity.
Aside from Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” which I previously caught at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, the best movie I have seen at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is far and away Lukas Dhont’s “Girl,” a Belgian drama about a young transgender ballerina. It earned four awards at Cannes, including a Best Actor prize in the Un Certain Regard section for its 16-year-old star, Victor Polster. Though the film has yet to secure a U.S. release date, I have no doubt that once it reaches the states, it will trigger the same debate all over again, which is a shame. Yes, it would’ve been wonderful to see a transgender performer in the title role, yet I doubt few actors on the planet—regardless of their gender or orientation—could’ve pulled it off as masterfully as Polster does here. Just as 17-year-old Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie deserves Oscar consideration for her astonishing performance in “Leave No Trace,” so does Polster for disappearing so completely into the role of Lara that the audience accepts her entirely on her own terms from frame one. No attempt is made to otherize Lara by placing her on a patronizing pedestal. She simply comes across as a typical 16-year-old girl with a beautiful smile, a need to protect her privacy and a preoccupation with the pains of adolescence (though as is the case for transgender teens, her pains are much more extreme). She blends into the crowd effortlessly, and blushes with elation when strangers address her while utilizing pronouns in line with her gender identity.
I can already predict the missteps that the Hollywood version of this story would make, starting with the amount of screen time that would be devoted to Lara’s father, Mathias. As played by Arieh Worthalter, he is a loving soul whose excessive prying is fueled purely by his concern for Lara. Mathias doesn’t buy his daughter’s routine mantra of “I’m fine” for an instant and is determined to be there for her, even when she’d prefer to keep him on the other side of her bedroom door. Worthalter is a wonderful supporting player, and the key word here is “supporting.” Whereas well-intentioned films like “The Danish Girl” and “3 Generations” upstaged their own trans leads with cis roles (either spouses or parents), “Girl” views its story solely through the eyes of its titular heroine. That in itself is a mark of progress, as is the portrayal of a supportive father, sharply contrasting with the bewildered family members in a coming-of-age gem from two decades ago, Alain Berliner’s 1997 Golden Globe winner, “Ma Vie en Rose.” Hollywood’s fear that audiences wouldn’t be able to relate to trans protagonists without a concerned straight caregiver eternally at their side is resoundingly shamed by a film like “Girl.” The audience that I saw the film with at KVIFF was comprised of all ages, including a number of young girls in the front row, and they were utterly enthralled. There were only one or two moments that caused parents to briefly shield their children’s eyes, and any pre-teen or teenager would benefit greatly from seeing the film. Even the full-frontal shots of Polster are so sensitively handled and de-eroticized that an NC-17 rating branded upon this picture would be flat-out criminal.
The script co-authored by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens explores territory that has been covered in even greater detail by the Jennings’ invaluable reality show, “I Am Jazz,” perhaps the only program worth watching on the oft-exploitative TLC network. Its last two seasons were groundbreaking television, examining the efforts taken by Jazz, now 17, with the aid of her parents, to prepare her for gender confirmation surgery, which she completed last week. As “Girl” opens, Lara is planning to undergo the same surgery, while taking on a ballet class where she aims to succeed, despite having feet too big for her slippers. With bracing honesty and insight, “Girl” captures so many aspects of what trans women—including Jazz—have experienced: the self-destructive compulsions that make them ill-equipped for surgery, the embarrassment of waking up with an erection, their gradual discovery of what gender they find attractive, their joy of finding acceptance within a community of their peers, etc. There may be no single image that better captures the terrible surreality of being born into the wrong body than the shot of Lara standing naked before a full-length mirror, staring at her penis as tears form in her eyes. The sight proves to be startling for the audience as well, since Lara’s identity as a woman is so innate, it is never in question. While detailing her hormone treatment that will begin prior to surgery, a doctor tells Lara, “You are just confirming what you already are.”
“Girl” is such an uncompromising and unforgettable beacon of truth that it is destined to shed harsh light on the egregious lack of representation in cinema, thus opening more doors for transgender stories to be told. It is my deep hope that the film will be embraced for what it is, rather than shunned for what it is not. This extraordinary achievement cannot be anything other than a step in the right direction.