Dir. Lucia Puenzo, Argentina/Spain/France, 2007, 86 mins, subtitles
Cast: Ines Efron, Martin Piroyanksy, Ricardo Darin
Review by Jean Lynch
Being fifteen is never the easiest stage in life, but imagine a puberty engulfed by not just one set of raging hormones but those of the other sex too. This is the confusing and devastating predicament facing Alex (Efron), an androgynous young woman who possesses both female and male genitalia.
The film unflinchingly details how Alex deals with this situation and is, in turn, devastating and moving. She has spent her short lifetime being moved from town to town by her parents, as they pursue the quest for a ‘normal' life for their child. The arrival of a surgeon, along with his family, who could conduct the necessary operation for this further complicates matters when his son, Alvaro (Piroyansky), and Alex discover a complicated attraction to one another.
Whilst the subject matter is frank, painful and raw, first-time director Lucia Puenzo handles it quite beautifully and in a most sensitive manner. Set against the shores of a Uruguayan coastal fishing village, where Alex's father works as a marine biologist, the film's mellifluous pace and dusky sunset blues reference the ocean, which combined with the presence of sea creatures such as the turtles her father rescues, or the fishermen's catch, are evolutionary reminders of the waters from which life first crawled, to then differentiate into male and female of each species. Except Alex. Alex sits on her bed with a chameleon perched on her foot. Like her, it is neither one thing nor the other.
Alvaro, meanwhile, is somewhat complicated himself. Although seemingly ‘normal', if somewhat withdrawn, the boy has a conflicting dilemma about his own sexuality. He tells Alex she's a freak, to which she replies “so are you” and, later, presents him with a gift, a tag for tracking the migration of turtles. “They're from the same family” she says, recognizing that he somehow is a kindred spirit. He chooses not to wear it. Later, however, they consummate their passions in what is the most uncomfortable of scenes to watch but one which is integral to the story and in no way gratuitous.
Whilst the film gently but unrelentingly explores the burgeoning sexual maturity of the youngsters, it equally examines how the adults around them try to understand and come to terms with their children. Alex's family have always run away when her secret has been uncovered, whilst her mother questions whether she is to blame for her deformity. Her desire for Alex to have the operation to remove her penis would just as much ease this guilt as it would solve – perhaps – Alex's problems. And her father's belief that Alex should be allowed to make up her own mind is also a reflection on the way he deals with the situation, refusing to take responsibility and even ignoring it. However, this does not make them bad parents, merely humans who love their child but have to find a way of dealing with this somewhat unusual situation. The viewer is not invited to judge them but to ask instead what they would do in their shoes? But while Alex's condition is quite explicit, Alvaro's father is inwardly concerned about his fey son, demonstrated when he tries to force him to drink – “you're old enough”. Alvaro is aware of his father's disappointment in him. This almost seems to be resolved when he and his father talk openly. “Do you like me?” Asks Alex. “I was afraid you were a fag!” is the triumphant reply, choosing to think that the attraction to Alex is straightforward boy to girl. The viewer cannot help but wonder which of the two youngsters is the most unfortunate.
Where the film should also be applauded is the way in which it never sensationalises the subject. It contains difficult scenes, such as Alex sharing a shower with another girl, or being chased and undressed by local youths who want to see ‘it'. And yet. Both are uncomfortable to watch but they are realistic, and neither end quite the way they might had this been a Hollywood movie. The emphasis is on the human aspect, the thought processes, the feelings.
XXY is a quite beautiful, understated film, with a wonderful performance from its lead actress who successfully steers her way through demonstrating the bullishness and insecurity of an adolescent, and the isolation and confusion her condition adds to that. Furthermore, its script is always engaging with some very nice, light touches. Serious though it is, this makes for a most watchable and enjoyable film.