Transgender protagonists have increasingly been featured in fiction films with high profiles on the festival circuit. Lukas Dhonts 2018 Girl won acclaim at Cannes, even though its American reception was complicated by complaints lodged by trans activists that the film dwelled inordinately on the central characters genitals. Last year, Flavio Alvess The Garden Left Behind was hailed at SXSW for its sensitive portrayal of an undocumented Mexican trans womans efforts to endure hostility and thrive in the United States.
Sbastien Lifshitzs documentary Petite fille (Little Girl), which premiered on Saturday at the Berlin Film Festival, approaches this topic from a slightly different perspective. An empathetic slice of cinma vrit, Lifshitz focuses on the travails of Sasha, a seven-year-old trans girl from a small town in northeastern France, and her campaign to gain acceptance from her peers and teachers as she comes to terms with the quandary of feeling female while inhabiting a boys body.
Lifshitzs film, however, is notable for being as, if not more, preoccupied with the earnest attempts of Sashas parents and siblings, particularly her doting mother Karine, to combat the discrimination this outwardly effervescent kid faces at school and among her classmates. At first, Karine berates herself and wonders if her desire to have a girl during her pregnancy sealed her childs fate. Eventually, she comes to realize, with the assistance of an enormously compassionate child psychologist, that Sashas plight should be regarded as a blessing not a burdendespite the protestations of clueless teachers and other sundry adults.
In fact, since what is entailed by the phrase gender dysphoria is now well known to the public, Little Girl is more illuminating in portraying the bureaucratic nightmares that frequently ensnare parents as they try to navigate the network of doctors and administrators that they must consult when their children experience the rejection that comes with being deemed abnormal. As Sashas mother exclaims, When your child is crying tears of pain, what do you do?
The familys local psychologist is sympathetic to Karines pleas for help, but has little to offer in the way of concrete advice; a small town in France is apparently as beset by misconceptions concerning sexual minorities as any tiny hamlet in the American Midwest. In order to receive more professionally astute advice, Sasha and her mom travel to Paris where a therapist trained in dealing with transgender kids issues a certificate that makes the childs gender identity official. This is a document designed to smooth the way for dealing with uncomprehending authority figures, a daily occurrence for an anguished Sasha.
As Karine recounts, a Russian-born ballet teacher is one of the most obtuse and unsympathetic adults that her daughter has the misfortune to encounter. Although Sasha yearns to don a leotard and dance with the girls, her teacher shuns her and appears to have no conception of the meaning of gender dysphoria. In addition, its a constant battle for Sasha to find classmates that wholeheartedly accept her. Its a small, but important, victory when a playmate named Lola treats her as both a girl and an equal.
One of the films most poignant interludes involves a doctor advising Karine that her child might have to eventually consider the use of puberty blockers, drugs that prevent the appearance of testosterone that have become controversial in some circles, when she reaches adolescence. A loving mother, Karine muses that the teenage years are typically associated with the arrival of first love, not medical intervention.
Mercifully undidactic, Lifshitzs film is as lyrical as it is observational. He underlines Sashas daily epiphanies with a lush soundtrack that includes snippets from Debussy and Vivaldi. The message seems to be that even mundane hardships can be gloriously, even liberatingly, operatic.