Amid the increasingly global and polarizing debate over transgender equality, Sebastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (★★★★★) feels like a decidedly small-scale affair. Filmed cinéma vérité style, with no input from Lifshitz and no grandstanding from talking heads, it instead pulls tight focus onto a single French family, typical in every way except for daughter Sasha, who was assigned male at birth.
Deceptively simple in its framing, Lifshitz’s film quietly establishes two protagonists: Sasha, and her mother Karine. Sasha is observant beyond her years, a 7-year-old child who is keenly aware of the impact of her words — and of her identity — on both the children and adults in her life.
She often catches herself mid-sentence, or refrains from speaking entirely, lest her words hurt the wrong person or reveal too much. Karine, on the other hand, is the warrior mother, ferociously protective, wonderfully understanding, and determined to ensure that Sasha can be a normal child — whatever that means and whatever it takes.
While arguments over puberty blockers and trans youth in sports might rage outside the walls of their home in Northeastern France, Sasha’s family offers a loving space for her to be her true self, with supportive siblings and a father who emphatically accepts her, declaring that she is his child, “period.”
Instead, conflict is left off-screen — a principal who hides behind “policy” to prevent Sasha dressing in girl’s clothes, a ballet teacher who publicly denounces Sasha’s gender identity before literally pushing her from the classroom.
Lifshitz details these moments through often devastatingly intimate exchanges between Sasha and Karine, or in sessions with an expert on gender dysphoria in Paris. With his camera close to Sasha’s face, capturing every fleeting expression, Lifshitz conveys the true impact of these adults’ actions on this child — their attempts to strip her identity away seen in a fleeting tear, a halted statement, a glance to Karine willing her mother to answer in her place.
No less impactful are Karine’s moments away from Sasha, where she voices her concerns, her exasperation, or even asks a family doctor if she is to blame for everything. At one point, Karine breaks down while noting all the ways Sasha can’t be like other children, whether choosing her preferred pencil case or even inviting friends home from school, lest they see her room decorated like any other little girl’s would be.
Aided by Paul Guilhaume’s gorgeous cinematography, the film presented in widescreen format and with every scene framed like an Oscar-worthy drama, Lifshitz finds a way to tell the story of a transgender child — the tough decisions, the obnoxious bigotry, the legal hurdles — in a beautifully impactful and personal way.
As Sasha’s brother notes, his friends had no trouble accepting his sister’s true identity. Lifshitz ultimately asks, in a masterfully simple way, why can’t their parents do the same?
Little Girl is available on-demand from Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. Visit www.musicboxfilms.com/film/little-girl for more information.
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