Ballet does terrible things to your body no matter your gender; throw in hormone treatment, structural transphobia and the simple travails of being a young teenage girl, and you’re in for one hell of a difficult coming-of-age experience. This is the premise of Girl, which takes a naturalist approach to the physical and psychological stresses of growing up trans.

Lara (controversially played by cisgender male Victor Polster) is still pre-operation, taking hormones and waiting for her gender affirmation to be confirmed. She has moved with her supportive father (Arieh Worthalter) and six-year-old brother to a new town, as she has been accepted into the best ballet school in Belgium. Here, Lara has to both navigate the normal travails of high school and the difficulties of presenting as a woman for the first time.

The contradictions and complications of transgender life are examined with remarkable empathy. It is not a feel-good movie about simply “being yourself” but rather a deeply layered examination of what it means to grow up in the wrong body. Here Dhont uses the bilingual nature of Belgian society as a metaphor. Just as Lara switches between French at home and Flemish at school, she must switch between being happily trans at home and a ‘normal’ girl at school (she chooses not to out herself). Conversely, while on the outside she can present as a woman, at home she subjects her body to constant scrutiny in the mirror.

This relationship to her body is explored with remarkable frankness, Dhont’s intimate camera unafraid to photograph every part of her body, including the delicate intricacies of tucking (where the penis is put behind the legs). We see Lara’s body as she sees herself, displaying how being born in the wrong gender can be an eternally discombobulating experience.

It is only on the dance floor that she feels free. The ballet is using extensively as a metaphor for the performative nature of gender, Lara acting as if her success as a dancer means that she can pass successfully as a woman. She may be reserved around other people, but when she dances all that stress and confusion plays out gloriously on her face. Given ballet’s relationship to horror (see: Suspiria, Black Swan) it is an appropriate metaphor for Lara fighting off her interior turmoil.

The ballet scenes are the best part of the film, as they allow Lara to be her true self, even if it comes at a great physical cost (the hormones aren’t helping either). It is when the film attempts to move into more dramatic territory that it starts to lose track of itself. For instance, there is something exploitative about the way genitalia is used as a plot point. The discovery that she has a penis by others feels awfully inevitable, and Dhont repeatedly builds up to this reveal as if we are watching a genre film. This obsession with playing with a penis reveal really comes at odds with the film’s otherwise sensitive handling of gender dysmorphia. While it is a commendable choice to completely lay bare the trans experience, and really show how the body can be at odds with the mind, this didn’t need to be juiced up with scenes that stink of genre titillation.

Therefore, while it should be lauded for its groundbreaking subject matter, it would have been far more effective if this arose as a natural extension of its main character. Victor Polster, does a great job of embodying the internal complications of having to act one way and still feeling like you don’t fit in, but he is let down by a screenplay ultimately more interested in shock value than true understanding. While no doubt a breakthrough for transgender representation, it shows that there is still a long way to go.

Girl | Directed by Lukas Dhont (Belgium, 2018) with Arieh Worthalter, Victor Polster. Starts October 18.

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