Last wednesday I dared a chilly Northern wind to get to the EYE museum - which is quickly turning into one of my favourite places in Amsterdam - to watch Lucas Dhont's highly anticipated debut 'Girl'.
And I'm glad I did, for 'Girl' absolutely blew me (and the rest of the public) away: the rumours are true, this is an incredible movie, and highly deserving of the prizes and recognition it's been getting around Europe.
'Girl' isn't a piece of work which easily translates into a written review- neither as a movie, nor as a full-blown experience. It is a incredibly intimate piece of cinema about growing up, about love, life, humanity, ballet, rights, injustices small and large, and of course about being different; and while it masterfully manages to condense it all into its 105 minutes runtime, it's hard to explain what really makes it so great or why you should go watch it no matter what. But I really have to try.
First of all, Victor Polster's performance as Lara, the main character in 'Girl', goes down as one of the most stunning debuts of the last decades. Lara, which he masterfully plays, is a transgender 15-years-old girl, who speaks three languages and does both ballet and pointe work on a professional level. Director Lucas Dhont mentioned during the Q&A how it took them two years of casting to find the right actor, and I can only imagine how hard the process was; but the end result is absolutely stunning.
Lara is an incredibly complex, beautiful and vibrant character; but Victor Polster manage to absolutely deliver an Oscar-worthy performance. This is not hyperbole: Lara is up there amongst the best characters of the last decades, and the way every line is spoken and every little movement is delivered - from the sweeping moves of ballet, to the subtle human gestures of an upset adolescent - seriously belongs in the pantheon of cinematic greats.
The supporting cast is just as good, with a breakout performance by Arieh Worthalter as Lara's father being the absolute standout of this stunning ensemble. Worthalter's character is incredible: a supportive parent who's nonetheless worried about Lara's well-being; warm and loving and better than any of us would be in his shoes, but just as unsure as how to handle those difficult choices as we would be. Providing more light-hearted moments than expected in what is an otherwise heavy going movie, the chemistry between Worthalter and Polster as father and daughter is the one bright light shining in 'Girl', and helps carry the story to the next emotional level.
And speaking of emotions, 'Girl' deliver those by the bucket. Lara's character is powerful and brave, well-loved by everyone around her and successful at her passion, dancing. Not only that, but she is widely supported by her family, friends, teachers, doctors and pretty much everyone else in her immediate circle. Lara's story is basically the best case scenario as far as transitioning transgender teenagers can go.
And yet, it is an incredibly painful movie to watch. 'Girl' delivers a never-ending barrage of incredible emotional slaps to Lara and her family, and by transition, to the audience. Emotional slaps is probably not the right word here, rather an euphemism for 'being emotionally crushed into your theater seat'.
I often go to the movies, and am more than used to watching difficult stories - but it's safe to say I've never experienced anything like 'Girl'. This is both a statement and a disclaimer: reader, be warned, for this possibly one of the most heavy and emotionally draining movies you'll see in your life.
At a certain point in the movie, Lara's father wonders what is wrong. "You have the best doctors treating you. You are in one of the best dance schools in this country. Everything's fine" he pleads.
But of course, everything's not fine. From the constant, grating fear of discrimination and rejection Lara faces every day, to the difficult relationship she has with her body; from the incredibly competitive environment at her ballet academy to a botched adolescent romance - made even more complicated by Lara's transexuality, the audience knows exactly what is fine and what isn't.
And as the movie progresses, and the number of 'fine' things progressively shrinks and Lara's physical and emotional strength falters, so does ours. By the time the final 30 minutes rolled in - and believe me, you will not see the ending coming - the entire audience, me included, was tearing up.
As mentioned by writer and director Lucas Dhont, 'Girl' is not a hero movie. It is not meant to be a cathartic experience, and it is definitely not a feel-good piece of entertainment. Quite the opposite actually: Lara's story is an incredibly raw and real slice of life - one that will absolutely crush you, no matter how prepared you think you are.
'Girl's 105 minutes of runtime flew by, but emotionally I felt as if I was being dragged on concrete and sandstone all the way through. As the credit rolled, I was absolutely drained. I felt physically tired, and I really really wanted to just go home and sleep. Hardly the light movie night anyone would want.
But I also felt like as if I'd lived in Lara's body for around two hours of my life. Some movies ask you to suspend your disbelief and drop into their world and story - 'Girl' is different in that it absolutely forces to do so. What you'll gain from this experience probably varies from person to person. As far as I'm concerned, I feel like 'Girl' has been one of the most important experiences I've sat through in my entire life.
And it's not just that. Apart from its incredibly important themes and the raw, emotional responses it triggers, 'Girl' is simply a great movie to boot. Masterfully shot, with incredible actors and a script that will leave you reeling for air, it is - without any single doubt - one of the most important movies of this generation.
"You are incredibly brave, and an example for so many people", tells Worthalter to Polster in one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie. "I don't want to be an example", answers Lara: "I just want to be a girl". And that's exactly why 'Girl' succeeds as a statement, as a movie and as a brilliant piece of art: because it never tries to be an example, or to be brave or controversial for the sake of it. It's just 'Girl' - a film without equals and in its own category; a beautifully human and incredibly touching piece of work which will pierce through the screen and through your heart, leaving you crushed, drained, destroyed even - and grateful for it.
Girl in Amsterdam: both at Pathé and Cineville-affiliated theatres, given that it's being released on the commercial circuit
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