It is hard to believe that this is Lukas Dhont’s debut feature film. It is beautifully photographed, terrifically acted and raises important issues .

It looks not just at the hard work, daily grind and obsessiveness needed in order to become a professional ballet dancer but also the generally hidden physically and emotionally difficult world of being a transgender teen. Body image is also most important both in the ballet world and generally. GIRL is about both Lara’s gender-changing journey and her all-consuming relentless passion to be a great dancer — to the exclusion of all other desires.

Cross gender actor Victor Polster plays Lara, a teenage girl now living in an apartment in Brussels with her father Matthias (Arieh Worthalter )and younger brother Milo. (Oliver Bodart) Lara has just transferred to a new dance school where she dreams of becoming a ballerina. Lara was, however, born with a male body, so she has been undergoing hormone treatments while eagerly awaiting confirmation for a sex-reassignment operation. The people in her life, for the most part, are very caring and supportive.In the eyes of her accepting father, Mathias, Lara is already a girl, and as her Flemish-speaking psychiatrist puts it, “The only thing we can do is confirm and support that.”

Dhont develops Lara’s story with the awkward growing-up moments everyone can relate to: the lunchroom on the first day of school, a tentative first sexual encounter, the gap between young people and parents at adolescence and so on. It is not clear whether Lara’s classmates know her secret, but it appears she’s trying to keep it hidden (though she uses the girls’ locker room, she comes already dressed and makes excuses so as not to shower with the others after). We see ghastly peer pressure when Lara is extremely embarrassed at a friend’s birthday party.

What could have be yet another highly awkward moment, when a teacher asks Lara to close her eyes and the rest of the female students are asked to raise their hand to indicate whether they are ok with Lara being in their dressing room, is shown in a brief, rather casual way.

And at school, a teacher discomfits Lara by drawing attention to her in the ‘what I did over the holidays’ round. We see Lara using white tape to flatten her crotch before ballet class – and that area becomes painfully infected and bleeding – which is also compared to the tape on all the girl’s feet to try and keep their feet surviving during pointe work (but still become a horrendous bloody wreck) .Both are used in the search for the image of perfection.

On the other hand Lara beams, delightedly when she drops off Milo at his school and a teacher asks if she is the boy’s sister.

Both Matthias and her therapist ask about the kind of boys she likes, but Lara hasn’t given it much thought and would prefer to leave it until after The Operation. And you get the feeling Lara is not really much of a talker , with awkward conversations between Lara and Matthias. Matthias is worried about the operation. Lara on the other hand counting the hours.

A dance student at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp who makes his screen acting debut here, Polster as Lara is amazing giving an incredibly assured performance and he sure can dance brilliantly .

Another issue is the film’s unflurried approach to nudity, which is very frank at times with Lara staring at the mirror wondering when her breasts will start to grow and how long before her ‘ male equipment ‘ can be removed. It is also perhaps typical of the dance and art world in general .

The supporting cast is very strong and Worthalter (Sympathy for the Devil) in particular is brilliant as Matthias, but the film really belongs to Polster as Lara.The startling ending is sure to provoke lots of discussion.

This was a  powerful, thought provoking film .

GIRL is playing  as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival which is screening until the 10th April, 2019.

Running time – with cinema ads allow 2 hours no interval