Transgender protagonists have increasingly been featured in fiction films with high profiles on the festival circuit. Lukas Dhont’s 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 character’s genitals. Last year, Flavio Alves’s The Garden Left Behind was hailed at SXSW for its sensitive portrayal of an undocumented Mexican trans woman’s efforts to endure hostility and thrive in the United States.
Sébastien Lifshitz’s 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 cinéma vérité, 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 boy’s body.
Lifshitz’s film, however, is notable for being as, if not more, preoccupied with the earnest attempts of Sasha’s 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 child’s fate. Eventually, she comes to realize, with the assistance of an enormously compassionate child psychologist, that Sasha’s plight should be regarded as a blessing not a burden—despite 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 Sasha’s mother exclaims, “When your child is crying tears of pain, what do you do?”
The family’s local psychologist is sympathetic to Karine’s 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 child’s 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, it’s a constant battle for Sasha to find classmates that wholeheartedly accept her. It’s a small, but important, victory when a playmate named Lola treats her as both a girl and an equal.
One of the film’s 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, Lifshitz’s film is as lyrical as it is observational. He underlines Sasha’s 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.