First screened and reviewed in February 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Lucía Puenzo. Cast: Inés Efron, Ricardo Darín, Martín Piroyansky, Valeria Bertuccelli, Germán Palacios, Carolina Pelleritti, Luciano Nóbile. Screenplay: Lucía Puenzo (based on the short story "Cinismo" by Sergio Bizzio).

Twitter Capsule: Story, symbols, and visual ideas can feel a bit forced. Still, a rich, unusual story deftly told by debut actress and director.

VOR:   Character focus and attendant themes all entail real risks, and breaths of fresh air. Style not yet measuring up. Pretty old-school symbolism. Hopes high for Puenzo.

Photo © 2007 Pyramide Films/Wanda Visión S.A./Historias;
© 2008 Film Movement
The low-key festival hit XXY offers an intriguing story about an intersexed teenager whose penis may or may not be scheduled for removal by a surgeon who has been surreptitiously invited to the parents' seaside home. Dull, aqueous light attempts a kind of lurking, pervasive analogy between Alex's anatomy and the uncanny forms of marine life. Pushing this visual conceit into awkwardly literal territory, Alex's father, oddly and unsubtly named Kraken, is scripted as a marine biologist. First-time filmmaker Lucía Puenzo (daughter of Official Story director Luis Puenzo) dawdles on the adaptable, inscrutable morphologies of various anemonies and other lab specimens, with evident reverence for their manifest refusals of fixed or legibly gendered embodiment. There's a slightly finger-wagging quality to these scenes, even apart from their discomfitingly obvious role in the film's thematics. Tugging at the audience to relinquish ideologies of "natural" or binaristic sex is one thing; implicitly scolding us for applying categorical expectations onto fellow humans that we would never enforce upon tideland species is an odd rhetorical angle, and edging the central character toward a metaphorical zone of deep-sea exoticism is a real risk.

Puenzo's directing, screenwriting, and camerawork demonstrate such palpable empathy with Alex that you can't fairly accuse the film of treating her coldly as a specimen. Still, they aren't quite deft enough to sell these cross-species associations as errant projections—i.e., attributing the Alex-as-anemone bias to the film's characters, rather than passing it off as the film's own queasy idea. The lighting scheme feels a bit overdetermined after a while, and the narrative development turns a little clunky. The film laudably delves into several characters' hangups about sexuality and identity, rather than isolating Alex for relentless and exceptionalizing scrutiny. That said, a parallel plot about a young boy named Alvaro's futile attempts to satisfy his father's criteria for credible masculinity augments one's impression of XXY as a promising screenwriter's draft, its blatant ambitions to Say Something about gender identity standing in the way of a fully rounded or subtly constructed story.

Forgive me, though, for foregrounding the film's flaws, because XXY—released stateside through the innovative and broad-minded indie-cinema advocates at The Film Movement—gets at least two things unambiguously right. For one, Alex's hard-to-classify sex and gender are not handled strictly as "problems" or as concerns that stand awkwardly apart from the rest of her experience. Insteady, they serve as both boons and impediments to the burgeoning sexual desires and the incipient self-regard of this budding teenager. Alex is feeling randy; while cognizant of the trouble that genital ambiguity poses to family members and potential partners, she projects a kind of rebel pride in her unique markers of difference. Moreover, quite apart from the question of sexual ambiguity, Puenzo and her entrancing young actress, Inés Efron, conspire to endow Alex with an excitingly frank, aggressively inquisitive spirit: rare in screen representations of young girls. In some ways this gesture is just as unusual for young boys in the movies, if you set aside the puerile horndogs of Hollywood comedies whose libidos are usually pre-given plot points and slapstick fixations, rather than credible aspects of characterization.

Alex does have sex around the midpoint of the film with young, confused Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky), who has formed only an inchoate sense of Alex's "difference" by the time they are stripping down, and who is clearly unprepared for Alex's adventurous appetites and swift shot-calling as their bodies begin to join. That this uneasy coupling is unwittingly spied upon by Alex's father (Ricardo Darín) allows XXY to be interested in new ways in the adult characters. They take shape not only as a stalemated jury about what to "do" with or about Alex but, at least in the father's case, as a collective lens through which the film illuminates the many ways in which parents relate to the sexual maturation of their kids, often against their wishes or before they are ready to face up to the yearning adolescence of their "babies." In a film that sometimes feels too stuck in an emotional choke, where everyone remains dourly uncertain of what to say or to whom, the bond between Alex and Kraken feels particularly eloquent and well-calibrated, without jutting out too far from the terse, introspective mood that dominates the film. Darín, currently the preeminent film actor in Argentina, deserves a lot of credit here, but what matters most is how much Puenzo and her leads have collaborated to make these characters convincing both as individuals and as restive participants in a bond that feels unconditional and newly threatened at the same time.

Visually, rhythmically, and thematically, then, XXY sometimes feels clumsy or congested, but beyond tackling a tricky subject with admirable conviction and through two compelling performances, it conjures a real integrity of tone and perspective. Even when the film overdoses on its own downcastness or on dubious similes and symbolisms, you can feel why the characters, like the filmmakers, are so humbled by the conceptual intricacies and high emotional stakes of the fundamental scenario. If XXY doesn't push as far forward into its story or characterizations as one might wish, it doesn't fall backward, either, into the tired plot-constructions and family dynamics that prevail in so much low-budget, queer-targeted cinema. Best of all, it augurs well for future, interesting work from the debuting director and from her fearless, instantly unforgettable young star. Grade: B–

Cannes Film Festival: Critics Week Grand Prize

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