>>Also in this issue: A quick guide to the new queer Argentine cinema
A father sits at the bedside of his child and, when asked what he is doing, softly answers, "I'm looking after you." Words and tone and eyes convey anxiety, fatigue, and overwhelming tenderness, and this complicated admixture quietly telegraphs, to the viewer and the child on-screen, in the aftermath of trauma and terrifying distress, a heart-calming constant: that, as he tells another character, from the moment of her birth, he has always seen her as perfect.
This flawless child, Alex (Inés Efron), the emotional focal point of Lucía Puenzo's XXY, is also a moody, unpredictable 15-year-old, and her own complicated admixture is spiked by impetuousness, caprice, casual cruelty, and a tendency to press at the boundaries of those in her orbit. She's also captivating, forcefully intelligent, and unreservedly herself, even while holding the world at bay to protect a secret, even in the process of feeling her way, via impulse and reflection, toward an understanding of what, exactly, that self is.
Decisions made before Alex's birth have, in a sense, led to this sweet and sorrowful exchange between father and daughter. She was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics, and raised female (perhaps based on test results and the best guesses of doctors, though this is never stated outright). Her parents, Kraken (Ricardo Darín), a marine biologist, and Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli), decided to forgo a so-called normalizing surgery for Alex: in essence, a dubious attempt to impose a firm gender identity at birth. Without ever fully conquering their own unease and fears for a beloved child, they have left her in possession of the facts and the right to make her own choices an emotional, improvised, and at times visceral process.
The task, grown more difficult with adolescence, takes on a painful new weight when Erika (Carolina Peleritti), an old friend of Suli's from Buenos Aires; her husband, Ramiro (Germán Palacios); and their teenage son, Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky), come to visit the family's home on the southern coast of Uruguay, where they moved shortly after Alex's birth. This other family of three, with its own fraught relationship between father and child, carry with them the social dictates and preconceptions Alex's parents have sought to shield her from by living in an isolated place. They can't, of course, shield her, and Alex is changing already, with or without the interference of strangers, but their arrival invests her process of discoveries with a sense of urgency, of necessity. In part this is because Ramiro, a renowned plastic surgeon, has come intending to recommend and advise them on "corrective" surgery. But the attraction that forms between his son and Alex exerts its own force on both of them, and for Alex such a connection inevitably involves the desire to reveal herself (literally and otherwise) and the risk of betrayal that attends such exposure.
Puenzo's first full-length film, XXY is beautifully shot by cinematographer Natasha Braier and, save for a few false notes, well scripted its silences and ambiguities and transfixing images engaging our imagination and sympathy. However, much of the credit for its successes (it has won numerous international awards, including several at Cannes in 2007 and Frameline 2008's audience award for best feature) falls to Efron's portrayal of Alex, whom we come to view with that same potent compound of emotions that she raises in those who watch over her in the film.
Opens Fri/1 at Bay Area theaters