Young Lara is asleep as Girl, Belgium's official submission for this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film, begins. Her mane of straight blonde hair falls across her cheek as her five-year-old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) climbs onto her bed, whispering her name.
It's clearly a ritual: As she wakes, she stays motionless — then, suddenly, hoists him in the air. The boy giggles.
Milo is adorable, and Lara is too — a fresh, pretty 15-year-old, delicately featured, slender, and (as evidenced by the ballet-stretches she begins before even getting out of bed) an aspiring dancer. She's applied to a ballet school, and later that day, when she's undressing for a physical exam, we first see that Lara's padded bra is covering a boy's chest.
From the other side of the privacy curtain, we hear her father and her doctor talking quietly about puberty inhibitors and when Lara will be ready to begin the hormone treatments that will make her body line up with her vision of herself. Those treatments, plus surgery, will take two years, and she's impatient. Another doctor — a psychiatrist — tells her she should relax.
"When I look at you," he says, "I see a beautiful woman."
She smiles, but doesn't believe him.
Meanwhile, she's enrolled in classes in which she must play catch-up, since she's learning at fifteen to do what the other girls have been doing for years — dance en pointe.
Her toes punish the floorboards with a percussive intensity that sounds like thunder, and though Lara is stoic in class, first-time writer/director Lukas Dhont lets you see what the work is costing her: When she's alone, she slowly untapes her now-bloodied feet.
The film's star is another newcomer — Viktor Polster, who was cast as Lara when he was just 14, and still going through puberty himself, though not transitioning. He gives a ferociously physical performance, whether en pointe and "taped" on the dance floor, or emotionally hemmed-in and taped (in a different way) at home.
Polster's performance is wise beyond his years, especially as Lara becomes impatient with being in-transition. The performance meshes with the director's insistence on playing Lara's increasingly desperate impatience in context: Lara's father is wholly supportive. So are doctors, shrinks, school officials, fellow dancers. In fact, where most queer films are about external conflicts and prejudice, Lara's biggest conflict is with what she sees in the mirror. Which means she's not seeing what we see.
The physical specifics are almost beside the point. There is never a moment when the Lara on screen is anything other than the Girl of the title.