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‘Little Girl’ Review: Arrestingly Tender Vérité Documentary on Trans Childhood

Now opening at New York's Film Forum, French auteur Sébastien Lifshitz's nonfiction triumph plays like a narrative feature.

Little Girl trans film cinema

“Little Girl”

Film Forum

There’s no rule that a great documentary should imitate narrative film, but it’s impressive when one manages to skirt the line so delicately that the viewer has no idea what they’ve been watching until the credits roll. That’s the experience with “Little Girl,” Sébastien Lifshitz’s luminous portrayal of a seven-year-old trans girl living in Northeastern France. Shot primarily at her eye level, “Little Girl” takes you straight to the heart of the trans child’s experience, seeing through her eyes the dogged support of her indefatigable mother and loving family.

If little Sasha is the soul of the film, her mother Karine is its unwavering heart; driving the film to the steady rhythm of unconditional love and tenderness. “Little Girl” opens with Karine visiting a local family doctor, though that’s not explained in the film, who misgenders Sasha, asking leading or blaming questions about Karine’s parenting. Each time he does it, she uses the correct pronouns in turn, though in her fragile state she’s susceptible to his shameful framing. She thinks she somehow caused Sasha’s gender dysphoria, either by wanting a girl or by allowing her to wear dresses.

The first scene with Sasha and Karine arrives 20 minutes in, a welcome relief from the more staid interview scenes with Karine and Sasha’s father, who is just as supportive but less involved. Lifshitz frames these interviews similar to the other scenes, in handheld close-ups and intimate medium shots, blurring the line between therapist and documentarian. Whether intentional or not, “Little Girl” could easily pass as a hyperreal narrative with faux-staged interviews. It’s genre-androgynous.

When Karine and Sasha ride the train to Paris to visit a specialist in gender dysphoria, their relief is palpable. The doctor not only immediately affirms Sasha’s gender, but Karine’s parenting choices, assuring both mother and daughter in the same breath. Karine’s primary concern is getting a letter explaining Sasha’s gender identity to school officials, who have been difficult. The rest of the film is primarily framed around the conflict with Sasha’s school. Her teachers misgender her and the principal is unhelpful, but she’s made friends and she doesn’t want to switch schools.

"Little Girl"

“Little Girl”

In interviews with her siblings in scenes of domestic life, we see the ambiguity Sasha is coping with. In ballet class, as the other girls fight over pink or purple sashes for their dresses, she stands to the side in her red silk pajama set, observing them coolly. Her older sister says Sasha doesn’t wear dresses in public out of fear of someone at school seeing her. Karine is blunt and vulnerable in her interviews, sharing with heartbreaking honesty that she worries Sasha is being “deprived of her childhood.” It breaks her heart that Sasha can’t have playdates, can’t pick out a dress for the first day of school, can’t wear a leotard to dance class. “My aim as a mother is for Sasha to experience childhood normally,” Karine says, tears in her eyes.

Though the family’s struggles provide the core narrative, “Little Girl” is ultimately a triumphant portrait. Like a protective cocoon, her parents and three siblings unite around Sasha, her 10-year-old brother full of wisdom when he forgives his mother for being less present with him in order to fight for Sasha. The family eventually win their battle with the school, securing full acceptance in time for third grade, though a traumatic incident at dance class is a painful dose of her ongoing reality.

Lifshitz shoots Sasha in golden-hued close-up, her feathery chestnut bob falling around her cherubic face. He scores the film with plaintive classical themes; Debussy, Dvořák, and Vivaldi. If the choices feel a bit laden, it’s a definite choice, albeit a predictable one.

But there are moments of levity amidst the sorrow, and Sasha’s story ends on a high note. She is light and playful dancing in her clicking gold heels, swinging her polka-dot umbrella with the swagger of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in The Rain.” The same gold heels make a second appearance as Sasha kicks a soccer ball with her new friend on their first playdate. When Karine takes her shopping for a swimsuit, she chooses a pink polka-dot bikini paired with a matching skirt. At the beach, she flits playfully in a pink straw hat, but the skirt is nowhere in sight. The normal childhood Karine so yearned, and fought for, is slowly becoming a reality.

Grade: B+

“Little Girl” is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum. 

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