Near the beginning of “Little Girl,” the camera sits quietly in on a ballet class for second-grade girls. Among them is seven-year-old Sasha Kovac, in a dark T-shirt and tights that contrast starkly with the other girls’ papery white dresses. She moves gracefully but warily, her eyes more on her fellow dancers’ movements than her own, her arms threatening to break expressively free but not quite achieving liftoff. An instructor brusquely tells Sasha to stop watching the others, but it’s easy to see why she can’t: She seems to be palpably outside this class, looking for a way in.
It’s a familiar feeling for Sasha, having been born in a male body but certain, from the age of two, that she is female. Sébastien Lifshitz’s lovely, clear-eyed documentary thoughtfully articulates the disorientation of gender dysphoria not from the inside out — Sasha is never less than calmly convinced of who she is — but from the outside in, as her transitioning identity sparks confusion and resistance in an uninformed community, causing her anxiety in turn.
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Stylistically unadorned and free of commentary or editorialization, Lifshitz’s documentary may be read and received differently by viewers at varying stages of transgender understanding and experience. To some, the film’s empathetic, unsensationalized portrait of a family accepting their daughter and in turn seeking the acceptance of others may be genuinely mind-expanding; to others, Lifshitz’s mature, unflustered approach to the subject will seem aptly normal.
Either way, in keeping the focus tightly on Sasha and her family rather than outside authorities, “Little Girl” avoids trading in generalized victims and villains: Abetted by Lifshitz’s natural, limpid shooting style, the film plays as a fluent character study, as specific and idiosyncratic in its storytelling as a fictional counterpart like Celine Sciamma’s “Tomboy.” Sasha is presented as a human being rather than a case for advocacy or argument; there are no talking heads, statistics or journalistic embellishments to contextualize her plight, since she and her family already explain it quite plainly and vividly. Even the film’s one prominently featured medical expert, Sasha’s kindly therapist in Paris, keeps things simple, allaying parental fears of having caused or contributed to their child’s dysphoria with uncomplicated reassurance: “It is what it is,” she says.
Unfortunately for the Kovac family, not everyone in their working-class provincial community is quite so unfazed. Local doctors mean well but know little. Teachers at Sasha’s school marginalize her and deny her identity, meaning many of her classmates follow suit; even her few friends, she says, don’t refer to her with female pronouns. At least she’s never encountered such resistance in her family. Her doting, strong-willed mother Karine has taken her daughter at her word ever since she first queried her gender identity as a toddler; her older siblings are all fiercely protective and unquestioning. Ditto her taciturn father, although he takes a back seat to his wife in managing Sasha’s treatment: “It’s not a matter of tolerating,” he shrugs, in one of his few statements to camera. “She’s my child, period.”
Getting Sasha to feel as safe and accepted outside the family sphere is a taller order, and one Karine pursues with a softly determined sense of maternal fight, whether organizing local meetings of adult acquaintances and allies, or accompanying her daughter to Paris for one counseling session after another. It’s a journey that takes a step back for every few taken forward, and Karine’s doughty resolve occasionally falters: At one heartbreaking point, with the new school years soon to start, she openly weeps for all the forms of self-expression, from clothing to knapsacks to pink pencil cases, that Sasha has been denied thus far, all for the sake of making those around her more comfortable.
Yet in incremental stages, like a budding spring tree, we gradually observe Sasha settling into herself, without embarrassment or apology to others: Toward the end, she joyously dons a chintzy fairy-wing costume to wear outside, and it has as brave and bolstering an effect on her as a suit of armor. For all the emotional heft of the doc’s family-oriented footage, Lifshitz — a veteran LGBT documentary specialist who profiles queer lives of all ages — forms a gentle, unforced rapport with Sasha when she’s alone on screen, at play in her own world or fixing us with an impish, quizzical glare.
As in much of his best work, Lifshitz keeps the camera as invisible and unobtrusive a presence as possible, even as it peers perceptively into little-viewed lives, often adopting a low, child’s-eye perspective of its own. The subtle spontaneity which he and DP Paul Guilhaume capture a growing, changing family across an extensive (if not precisely marked) timeframe is nothing short of remarkable. But there’s room for unusual aesthetic beauty amid the transparent naturalism. The filmmakers’ careful compositions embrace the springy, pastel palette that Sasha herself adores, often flooding the screen in downy light, while making generous, exploratory use of the widescreen frame throughout: In every sense, “Little Girl” gives its subject amble space to be.
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