Saturday, September 06, 2008

Review - XXY

It's not unusual for teenagers to feel uncomfortable in their own skin, and to feel like they don't quite fit in, but 15 year-old Alex (Inés Efron), the central character in Lucía Puenzo's quietly captivating XXY, has more reason to feel that way than most. Alex is a hermaphrodite who has moved with her family from Argentina to a small Uruguayan coastal town in an effort to deal with her condition as privately as possible. Outwardly, Alex looks like a rather tomboyish girl, with small breasts and a skinny, angular body, but hidden under her clothes are both male and female genitalia, and she is at an awkward juncture in her life where her parents want her to decide which gender she should ultimately assume. To aid their decision, Alex's mother (Valeria Bertuccelli) has invited a friend who happens to be a plastic surgeon to stay with the family for a few days and to discuss medical possibilities, and Ramiro (Germán Palacios) arrives early in the film with his wife (Carolina Pelleritti) and his own 16 year-old son Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky). The new arrivals are watched by Alex from a concealed position, her eyes blazing with curiosity and suspicion, and throughout the film, these eyes act as a powerful conduit for the character's conflicting emotions. As the troubled teen in the middle of this drama, Inés Efron gives an astounding, vividly unpredictable performance. She maintains a confident, bullish persona to mask her character's sense of vulnerability, and she is still upset about the recent betrayal of a close friend she confided in, who received a broken nose when he betrayed her trust. Efron's display takes on extra dimensions when she begins to make sexual advances towards the nervous Alvaro, although it's clear her actions are borne as much from a sense of intrigue she has with regard to her ever-changing body (Alex has stopped taking her hormone control pills, and her male side is exerting itself). Alvaro himself is similarly attracted to Alex, but also he finds himself wracked by sexual confusion when he discovers the truth, and all of this builds towards a sex scene that is among the most remarkable in recent cinema, both shocking and oddly comical. This coupling is discovered by Alex's father Kraken (the great Argentine actor Ricardo Darín), who is the film's most significant secondary character. Kraken is troubled by his wife's decision to invite the surgeon into their home and to ask their advice about his daughter's future, because he just wants Alex to have a chance of happiness without going under the knife, to be comfortable with who she is. He is furiously protective of his daughter, taking up the fight against a group of teenage boys when Alex is almost raped by them on the beach, and touching bond between father and daughter gives XXY its emotional centre. It's a shame, then, that Puenzo feels the need to use Kraken's position as a marine biologist to insert some clumsy symbolism into the film, frequently bringing up intersex sea creatures to no real effect, and she ill-advisedly follows one discussion about Alex's potential operation with a shot of a carrot being chopped. The name Kraken is also derived from a legendary sea monster, although it is unclear what the director wants to infer, if anything, through this connection. Puenzo doesn't need to decorate her story with such crass imagery, because her direction is generally sensitive enough to allow it to unfold in a compellingly understated fashion. The cinematographer Natasha Braier shoots the film in tight close-ups and occasionally finds some striking compositions – such as Alvaro watching Alex undress through a window – and the picture is often erotic without being titillating. It would have been so easy for XXY to mishandle this taboo subject matter, but aside from the occasionally clumsy aspects referenced above, Puenzo's depiction of the choices faced by Alex, Kraken and Alvaro is intelligent and sensitive, and at its core, it offers a performance by Inés Efron that is among the year's finest. XXY is the story of a teenager being asked to choose a path, but Efron's beautifully ambiguous display helps it to develop into something much more complex and profound, and it eventually becomes a powerful study of self-acceptance.