Teenagehood is one of the most difficult times in our lives. Add to that the intense dedication that it takes to become a ballet dancer, and the internal conflict that comes with being gender-nonconforming and you have Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s critically-acclaimed drama, Girl.
Dhont’s first feature film tells the story of 15-year-old Lara, a male-born ballerina who is juggling her goals in the cutthroat dance world and her gender reassignment process. The film relies on a stunning performance by breakout actor Victor Polster, a dance student at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp. When he showed up to audition, Polster was a fifth-year student. He’s since won the Un Certain Regard Jury Award for Best Performance at Cannes Film Festival.
Dhont noticed Polster right away. “What I immediately saw in him was the enormous discipline he had, because he was training to be a classical dancer since he was 7 or 8,” he says. “I felt this maturity coming from a 14-year old that I had rarely seen. At the same time, I saw a big elegance and solitude, which sounds a little negative, but I mean it a quite neutral way. He was in a group, but he was really by himself.”
The director saw enormous potential for Polster to channel his physical fatigue into the film’s many emotional scenes. “I pushed him a little bit, but it's also really someone that knows what a performance is. He's been training to be a dancer, he wants to perform as well as he can. He created that character, he made her that complex and that elegant.”
The young cisgender dancer tackles the challenge of playing a character who never questions her identity, but who’s own biology is the largest hurdle to her success. Her father, played by Arieh Worthalter, struggles to keep his daughter’s head above water and her dreams in sight while she begins hormone therapy. This intimate look into her inner world, both within the script and style of filming, is a reflection on Dhont’s own identity. “I think during puberty, I felt an impossibility to make physical contact with someone else because I didn't allow my sexuality,” he says. “I didn't allow myself to go into that intimate relationship with someone else, and I think in my films, I've always tried to look up that intimacy.”
Dhont and Angelo Tijssens wrote the film, which has since won the Caméra d’Or award for Best Feature Film at Cannes, as well as the Queer Palm. It has also been selected as the Belgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. Dhont also made the tough decision to include nude scenes throughout. “We could not avoid the real conflicts of the film and the real conflicts were the body in its totality,” he said. Because Polster was only 14 years old, his parents had to agree to it. “I think we had talked about it so much, it was so clear to us why we were doing it, it was a very easy thing,” he says of filming the scenes. “We protected Victor as much as we could by not having a total shot of him, you can never see his face and his lower body in the same shot.”
Girl takes the viewer beyond the usual themes found in queer films, examining the complicated internal world and sensitive nuance of growing up trans. When asked about what it feels like to finally show his first film, Dhont gets emotional. “The opening is at the cinema that I’ve been going to since I was 7 years old,” he says. Every time he sees his mother’s face in the crowd, he can’t help but lose his composure. “Maybe if I see her again tonight, I’ll start crying,” he says. “But I hope not.”
Photography by Christopher Sherman