Little Girl Review
In just about every way, Sasha is a normal 8-year-old girl living in a town near Paris. She loves dressing up, dancing and Minnie Mouse. However, having been assigned male at birth she faces numerous challenges to simply live life the way that she wants - just like any other little girl. To Sasha, there are no doubts about her gender, and it is the divergence between that simple belief and the day-to-day realities of having that acknowledged in the world at large is what we see unfold in documentarian Sébastien Lifshitz’s Little Girl (Petite Fille) - a beautiful and sensitive portrait of the childhood transgender experience.
The topic of transgender children is something that comes with a lot of weight, especially in recent times. Questions are often raised about whether a child can truly understand and make the choice to transition, if they might regret it later, if medical intervention in puberty can be harmful long-term, and if parents and society might be influencing children to believe that they are transgender. Little Girl immediately makes it clear that Sasha’s certainty in who she is began very early, saying “When I grow up, I’ll be a girl,” when only 3-years-old. Lifshitz has worked with trans stories before in 2013’s Bambi, but where that was looking back at the life and career of trans showgirl Maire-Pierre Pruvot, Little Girl is very much concerned with someone at the beginning of their journey in gender identity.
Lifshitz is a very hands-off documentarian, keeping his presence minimal and allowing us to simply be observers in Sasha’s story, letting her and her family show us their lives and struggles. Rather than using narration to tell us about Sasha’s emotions and isolation, he lets us see the sadness in her eyes and feel a measure of it along with her. It’s intimate, but never to the point of feeling exploitive of this child. The main to-the-camera pieces are with Sasha’s mother Karine, at first expressing her fear about parts of a normal childhood Sasha will miss. Karine also admits guilt that she is somehow responsible for Sasha’s gender dysphoria by hoping for a girl when she was pregnant - something the doctor they see in Paris is very quick to shoot down - then displays determination to make it possible for Sasha to be herself at school where teachers have been resistant to the idea. Throughout we see her understanding of her daughter’s identity grow as she confronts her feelings and learns what it means to support her child through transitioning. Whilst it would have been nice to hear from some other voices, such as the doctor treating Sasha’s case, or Sasha herself, the distance allows for a lack of bias in telling the family’s story.
This is also possibly one of the most visually beautiful documentaries I’ve seen for some time. Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume really captures an artistic view of both the wide French landscapes and the comforting safety of the family’s home where Sasha's transition is accepted by her family without question. The scenes of Sasha and her family at the beach and when seen wearing a girl’s swimsuit without worry or care, are heart-stirring.
However, Sasha’s life is unfortunately not only one of acceptance. The main conflict of the film is of Karine doing everything possible to convince her daughter’s school to acknowledge her as a girl. These are the kind of challenges that are a part of trans peoples’ lives, and we feel the frustration as Karine hits wall after wall. First the school refuse to do anything without a medical document, and then still do not cooperate when Karine provides it to prove her diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Even when progress is made in some areas for Sasha to have the freedom to express who she is, there are cruelties and exclusions that still occur. It paints a picture of the struggles that she will face in life, but we are still left on a positive note with an image of Sasha, comfortable in who she is, dancing happily.
Little Girl is a documentary that inspires and informs in the best possible way, through the frank emotion and charm of its subject. I hope that this is a film that can help other trans children see themselves, know themselves, and be certain in who they are and be able to live it.
Little Girl is available to watch via Curzon Home Cinema from September 25.