Review: Girl (2019) (Netflix)

Warning: there are spoilers in my write-up. I’ll do my best to mark them, but if you don’t want to see any spoilers, you might want to skip this post until after you’ve seen the movie.

The movie Girl (on Netflix) was recently released after creating a buzz within the transgender community for having a few problems. The movie is about a 15 year-old transgender girl, Lara, who aspires to become a ballerina. To help her, her supportive single father, Mathias, moves the family (him, her, and her 6 year-old brother, Milo) to a new city where she can attend a prestigious dance school. While at the school, she is working with doctors and psychologists to continue her transition, including using puberty blockers and hormones. The staff and students at the school are aware that she is transgender, but nobody voices any concerns over her presence in women’s restrooms or locker rooms.

Spoilers: Lara faces a few problems: she came into ballet later than most girls, so she is behind on her training, and she did not begin foot-strengthening exercises at 12 which will make dancing en pointe more difficult for her; she is frustrated that her hormone therapy isn’t proceeding quickly enough; and she wants to have bottom surgery before she feels she will be comfortable experiencing many of the typical experiences which girls have during puberty – crushes, kisses, dates, etc. What’s more, she is uncomfortable with her penis and routinely tapes it into a tuck to keep it from showing in her leotard, and this taping is causing problems with the tissues down there.

More spoilers: Lara also experiences some trauma with her fellow students; at a party for the girl dancers, the other dancers pressure Lara to show them her penis since, they reason, she has seen all of them naked in the locker rooms. After a lot of pressure, she relents and shows the other girls her genitals. She then leaves the party and takes the subway home, telling her surprised father that her stomach doesn’t feel good. In another moment, a girl in the locker room asks Lara why she doesn’t shower. When Lara makes various excuses, the girl shoots each of them down, and ultimately hands Lara a towel. The next shot is Lara in the shower in her underwear, anxiously covering herself up and practically hugging the shower wall, crying.

No spoilers: Lara was played by actor Victor Polster, a cisgender boy. In recent years, the portrayal of transgender characters by cisgender actors has become a touchy subject, for a variety of reasons. First, transgender actors have a difficult time landing any roles because most directors won’t consider a transgender actor for a cisgender role. At the same time, it’s relatively common for cisgender actors to portray transgender roles, and frequently those actors receive a lot of praise for their performances. The problem with this is that having cisgender actors play trans roles tends to reinforce the common misconception that trans people (trans women in particular) are somehow also playing a role in their cross-gender persona — that a trans woman is a man acting like a woman. That said, I found Victor’s performance to be quite good – I saw a lot of nuance and depth to his portrayal, and he seemed to have a good grasp of many of the unique challenges a trans girl would face. It is my understanding that the casting call for the role of Lara went out to actors of all genders and experiences – the directors cast a wide net to find someone for this role – but the role was challenging to cast because it required extensive dancing skills on top of acting; Victor was originally cast as one of the secondary dancers, and they discovered he was able to act.

This movie portrayed many transphobic moments, as well as (a non-graphic, but quite intense moment of) some self-harm. This also drew criticism from the trans community as “trauma porn”. I find myself torn on this. These moments were portrayed realistically (the movie is based on a real-life story), and as a trans person, I felt these moments quite intensely. I feel that representation in the media matters, and I felt that this story rang true. But I also recognize that with such a famine of trans stories in the media, storylines like this one can tend to give the impression that these experiences are more common than they actually are, and lead people who don’t know much about trans people to believe that trans people are, in general, mentally ill and self-harming, when this is increasingly not the case.

I like this movie and I’m glad that I watched it. But I can’t recommend that everyone see this movie, because of the problematic elements I describe above. I think that this is a movie which requires some preparation before watching. A viewer would benefit from researching trans issues and learning about a variety of trans people’s experiences before watching the movie. And if they know some people within the community who have seen the movie, perhaps the viewer might ask them if they would be willing to discuss the movie after viewing.

I also can’t recommend that trans people view this movie without some preparation of their own. While I was watching the movie, I found myself identifying with Lara during many of her stressful moments, and even experienced some sympathetic dysphoria – watching her experience dysphoria on the screen brought on feelings of dysphoria and depression within myself. A transgender viewer may want to make sure they have good support and enough mental and emotional energy to process what they are seeing.

But as I said, I am glad that I watched this movie. I’m glad that we are beginning to see portrayals of trans people in the media where the trans people are not the villains, but are just regular people with complex problems and feelings – just like everyone else!

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