Though it's as sullen and damp-grey as its morose 15-year-old protagonist, Argentinean filmmaker Lucia Puenzo's directorial debut "XXY" doesn't really get inside the mind of young Alex as much as watch her with an awkward combination of fascination and empathy. It's both a success and a failing on the new filmmaker's part; her intention in making "XXY," to humanely depict a character who might in other films or literature be relegated to oddball supporting status, is undoubtedly noble. Yet by focusing almost exclusively on Alex's differences (she was born with both female and male genitalia), rather than offering other facets of her life for consideration, the film slightly shortchanges what could have been a beautifully full portrait of a teenager going through radical inner and outer turmoil.
Too often Alex feels more like a literary conceit than a person, a succinct embodiment of the confusion of adolescence, the terror of burgeoning sexuality adroitly made external. Puenzo doesn't do Alex (played by Ines Efron) any favors by pointedly placing her family and friends in heavily symbolic roles, all of which underscore rather than dilute her abnormality: her father, Kraken (Ricardo Darin), is a marine biologist given to puzzling over the sex of washed-up turtles; her mother's friend (German Palacios), whom she invites for a weekend at their home at the Uruguayan sea shore, is a plastic surgeon; the surgeon's son, Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), is also going through frightening stages of sexual maturation and bafflement. Rather than tread lightly around all of this delicate material, Puenzo directs with a frank humorlessness that borders on ponderous.
Rarely is there a conversation in the film's ninety minutes that doesn't pertain to Alex's condition: her and her parents' indecision about whether to excise her male organs, now that she has stopped taking hormone medication (though she identifies as female, would that be cosmetic or simply castration, they wonder?), does form the narrative backbone, but with so many moments devoted to family members simply staring off into ominous, windswept spaces (in one scene, her mother, nicely played by Valeria Bertuccelli, suddenly reminisces about Alex's birth at a cloudy, rocky beach), one would think they had just begun thinking about these difficult choices at the film's outset.
Similarly, when Kraken sorrowfully tries to connect with a local gas station attendant who had a sex-change operation many years ago, he stumbles over his words "I have a daughter . . . a son..."; the thought that an ostensibly loving father hasn't in more than a decade been able to properly identify his own child as either male or female speaks to a certain lack of real-world grounding here.
But it's Alex and Alvaro's desperate stabs at sexual contact and emotional understanding that form the core of "XXY," and Puenzo does depict their inelegant fumbling with penetrating, if still dour, capability. Piroyansky effortlessly enacts the slack-jawed, tortured inwardness of the dizzied teenaged male who doesn't know what to do with his sudden bursts of sexual aggression, and Efron, with her hollowed-out eyes, attenuated bone structure, and intimidating stare (if there's anything confident about her it's her anger) is a compelling figure: shot in gritty, caressing close-ups by Puenzo, she looks at least thirty years old, wise beyond her years yet hobbled by disgust at her own body. Alex dares others to look at her, embracing her oddness as an emotional strength, and Efron cunningly depicts that mix of fragility and self-possession.
If only the entire film were as daring and untidy as Alex. Puenzo's debut is too overdetermined and saddled with explicit metaphor; it's the kind of film that deigns to have a pet lizard crawling over Alex's feet (most lizards are sexually dimorphic...get it?) while she reads to herself (aloud!) from a biology book about the evolutionary and embryonic dominance of the female sex. If Puenzo had found anything compelling about her characters outside of their most sensationalistic traits, then "XXY" might have been a more forceful unorthodox coming-of-age story; instead she abandons them at a particularly gloomy shore.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]