At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 29 Mar

Adolescence is a tough old time for any teenager, but the eponymous girl in Lukas Dhont’s directorial debut has things exceptionally hard. Born into a boy’s body, 15-year-old Lara has set her heart on becoming a professional ballet dancer. At the film’s opening, Lara has an interview at one of Belgium’s most prestigious dancing schools and is rewarded with an eight-week trial, during which time she must prove her credentials. It’s an audition to assess her skills as a dancer, but Lara clearly feels her gender is also subject to appraisal, as well.

Despite taking hormone-replacement pills and waiting in line for gender reassignment surgery, Lara’s corporeal transformation can’t come quick enough and she impatiently counts the days until she can inhabit a body in which she truly feels at home. Backdropped by commendable encouragement from her father, supportive guidance from the medical community and – apart from one uncomfortable slumber party scene – blanket acceptance from her school peers, Lara’s own worst enemy in achieving both her goals is herself. In her stubborn attempts to fit in and look the part, she goes to painstaking and extremely painful lengths to mask her genitalia and feminise her feet, culminating in a visceral act of self-violence which is not for the faint-hearted.

After winning plaudits and nominations aplenty from cis critics, Dhont’s film has come under significant fire from the trans community on two counts. Firstly, the choice of a cisgender male (newcomer Viktor Polster) in the role of Lara has drawn criticism for its neglect of genuine trans talents, while the film’s focus on Lara’s body (and its shocking climax in particular) have attracted accusations that it is nothing more than “trans trauma porn” masquerading as a survival story. Regardless of the validity of the first point, Polster gives a nuanced performance as Lara, allowing us a window into her mental anguish through her futile attempts to paper over her problems with a smile. Whether being stung by the unconscious use of her former name or delighted by equally casual acceptance into the female species, Polster’s Lara is entirely believable and empathetically human.

As for focusing overly on Lara’s body, it is true that Dhont’s direction is unflinching and perhaps intrusive on multiple occasions, but it never feels exploitative or judgmental. Rather than provoke disgust or repulsion, his exploration of Lara’s inner turmoil over her outer appearance enlarges understanding of her plight and engenders empathy for it. Her reactions are that of a typical teenager, but in the context of her unique situation, they’re perhaps more destructive than they might otherwise be. The unfortunate staggering of the final scenes does raise some dubious questions over the implications of its narrative structure, but the closing note of optimism is a welcome curtain call on an engaging investigation into body issues that throws up no easy answers.