I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on film and TV. With awards season racing towards the Oscars, I was excited by the Oscar shortlists released earlier this week. But for me, it wasn’t what film was on the shortlists, but the Belgian film notably missing among the bunch: “Girl,” Lukas Dhont’s trans coming-of-age drama that earned Cannes’ Queer Palm, will not be vying for the Foreign Film Oscar. This snub, though a shock to many, actually tells us that the Academy may be learning from its past mistakes with LGBTQIA+ films. Because “Girl,” the drama every cis film critic seems to love, is one of the most violent and dangerously naive films of the year, soon to be available as trauma-porn on Netflix.
*content warning ahead for self-harm and mutilation*
“Girl” follows Lara, a trans teenage dancer who’s just enrolled in a new school and begun hormone replacement therapy (HRT), with the enthusiastic support of her family. But soon, things begin to fall apart for the young dancer, as difficulties with her dancing, her peers and her doctors threaten to postpone her gender reassignment surgery (a.k.a. bottom surgery).
Usually, one’s biggest complaint about this sort of film would be the lack of trans people involved in its making: Victor Polster, who plays Lara, Dhont, and Angelo Tijssens, who wrote the script with Dhont, are all cis men. (Nora Monsecour, the real-life inspiration for Lara, did collaborate closely with Dhont, but was not credited.) “Girl’s” more pervasive problem is its voyeuristic, leering shots of the underage Polster, who’s seen painfully tucking their genitals away, ripping off the tucking tape, and studying their naked body in at least five nude scenes. Lara is also bullied by her fellow dancers into showing her penis at a sleepover in an explicitly transphobic scene, intended to horrify the viewer. And the film’s gruesome finish? After her doctors refuse to perform her bottom surgery, Lara attempts it herself, mutilating her genitals with a pair of scissors.
As Oliver Whitney wrote in a guest column with THR, these are just some of the issues with “Girl,” with the story ultimately being poorly written. Lara suffers from severe body and gender dysmorphia, with Dhont choosing to give these dark, uncomfortable feelings full reign of Lara, ignoring the fact that HRT will usually give a trans person psychological relief, not turmoil. As trans film critic Cathy Brennan points out, “Girl” displays “perverse hypocrisy” in the way Lara’s body is shot, repeatedly focusing on her genitals and displaying Polster’s naked body for the viewer, just like Lara’s homophobic peers, but fails to acknowledge that double standard. The film randomly throws up obstacles for Lara despite little to no lead-up to such events, and forces a brutal, fictional narrative, despite Lara being based on real-life professional dancer Monsecour. And for some reason, cis film critics love it, a phenomenon I still don’t understand.
It’s impossible for a trans person to watch “Girl” without being triggered by its content, and the film irresponsibly objectifies Lara without giving her a light at the end of the tunnel. And no, that odd final shot of Lara walking down a sun-lit street, years after her transition, doesn’t do that. There’s no path given towards that light: Lara is dropped into a happy ending with no explanation of how she got there. How can you see a path to a brighter future, if you don’t actually show one?
Dhont has every opportunity to fight Lara’s demons, to make “Girl” more than trauma-porn for cis audiences to fawn over, to inspire hope or at least, connection without traumatizing its trans audiences. But he willingly goes there without caring about the impact “Girl” could have on a vulnerable viewers, who may identify far too strongly with Lara’s unceasing pain. Those very viewers who will be able to watch “Girl” on Netflix this coming January.
“Girl” didn’t have to be all sunshine and uplifting moments– after all, whose teenage years are a bed of roses?– but “Girl’s” filmmakers double-down on the casting decisions and sad trans dramas as we’ve seen so very often in Oscar-winning films (“Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Danish Girl”). If “Girl” had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film and won, we would’ve seen yet another cis man profit off trans stories without representing them properly. The casting of Polster, a cis male actor, would also give the impression once more that trans identities are a mere performance, a choice, a coat that can be taken off at the end of a day. It’s more of the same, but worse.
To be fair to Dhont, Monsecour is happy with Dhont’s depiction of Lara and the casting of Polster, telling IndieWire, “My story is not a fantasy of the cis director [Dhont]. Lara’s story is my story.” For Monsecour, finding an actor who understood Lara was her concern, and not that actor’s gender. Monsecour has repeatedly defended “Girl,” seeing the film as a story that doesn’t sugarcoat the internal battle Monsecour had with herself as a young dancer. While it’s good that Dhont, at least, earned Monsecour’s trust and respect, once his film premiered, “Girl” became responsible for its own message and impact. And for trans audiences, this film is an attack, not an honor.
With “Girl’s” four Cannes accolades and a Golden Globe nomination under their belt, it’s no accident that Belgium’s contender for the foreign film Oscar did not make the cut. It seems that, after several missteps, the Academy is learning to recognize fundamentally flawed stories about trans people, and refuse to reward their filmmakers.