TIFF: ‘Girls Lost’ is a smart and stylish gender-bender

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Themes of gender and sexuality are having a big moment in American cinema this year, with the likes of About Ray, Stonewall and Freeheld about to hit theaters soon. But Hollywood is merely catching up with the rest of the world, where films like Alexandra-Therese Keining’s Girls Lost are tapping into the zeitgeist in exciting ways. This Swedish fantasy film is wrapped in an accessible genre package, but I’m willing to bet it’s more thoughtful and daring than most of the Hollywood LGBT dramas we’ll see this fall.

Girls Lost follows a trio of teenage girls enduring one of the most hellish environments on earth – high school. Their days are filled with routine bullying by a group of violent boys, who take every opportunity to inflict physical and psychological abuse on them. As their teachers shockingly resist any interventions, the girls are forced to rely on each other for strength and protection. But one day, they get an unexpected reprieve from their lives, when they find a magical plant with the ability to change them into boys for the night. With their new appearance, the trio are finally able to live without fear, now able to socialize with the cool kids after school. Quickly becoming addicted to the incredible privileges of their secret, their friendship is put to the test as they explore the complicated terrain of gender relations and sexuality.

I don’t know if it can be called a movement or not, but Swedish filmmakers seem to have a knack for thoughtful explorations of girlhood as of late. Just last year, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! was an under-the-radar critics’ fave, and now we have another gem which further expounds on similar issues of angst and identity. In Girls Lost, this probing screenplay poses questions of what it means to be male, female, straight, queer and most importantly, the fluidity between these labels. And as the magical events coincide with the girls’ sexual awakening, the film brings to empathetic light how confusing and anxiety-inducing these social constructs can be for young people.

On top of the thought-provoking script, Kening puts a distinctive personal stamp on the material. She plays with the enduring fantasy tropes – body transformations, full moon iconography, magic gone wrong – to enthralling effect, with the aid of the film’s moody cinematography and an awesome soundtrack. Rarely have high school hallways seemed so ominous on screen.

Like most other genre films, Girls Lost has its fair share of contrivances to move the plot along. Still, all of its strengths add up to make this one of the coolest films of the year. The film doesn’t ultimately pick sides in the boys vs girls debate, but with its sensational cast of young actresses and female artists in every aspect of its outstanding craft (notably including cinematography and editing), it’s pretty obvious which gender won this round.