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).
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, and writer-director
Lucía Puenzo (daughter of Official Story director Luis Puenzo) dawdles deliberately on the adaptable, inscrutable morphologies
of various anemonies and other lab specimens, with evident reverence for their manifest challenges to fixed or 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 the ideologies of "natural"
sex or cleanly binarized anatomy is one thing, but implicitly scolding us for applying categorical expectations to fellow humans that we do not expect from your average
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
screenwriting and camerawork demonstrate the kind of palpable empathy with Alex that you can't fairly accuse the film of treating her coldly as a specimen, and yet
they aren't quite deft enough to take convincing shape as an evocation of psychological projectionthat is, they fall short of attributing the Alex-as-lifeform
connotations to the characters, rather than to the film as a whole. The lighting scheme feels a bit overdetermined after a while, and the narrative development
turns a little clunky. While it's to the film's credit that it has ambitions of delving into several characters' hangups about sexuality and identity,
a parallel plot about a young boy named Alvaro's futile attempts to satisfy his father's criteria for credible masculinity often feeds into the impression of
XXY as a promising screenwriter's draft rather than a fully rounded or subtly constructed story.
Nonetheless, the filmreleased stateside through the innovative and broad-minded indie-cinema advocates at The Film Movementgets at least two things unambiguously
right. For one, Alex's sex and gender are not handled as static problems but, unsurprisingly for a budding teen, as both a boon and an impediment to burgeoning sexual
desires and self-understanding. Alex is feeling randy; while cognizant of the trouble that bodily ambiguity poses to family members and potential partners, the
actress Inés Efron simultaneously projects a kind of rebel pride that Alex takes in these unique markers of difference. Quite apart, too, from the question
of sexual ambiguity, Efron and Puenzo conspire to make Alex an excitingly frank, inquisitive, and even aggressive sexual creature: rare in screen representations
of young girls, and in many ways equally 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, more than they feel like credible points 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 calling of shots amid their boldly filmed encounter. That this uneasy couple are unwittingly spied
upon by Alex's father (Ricardo Darín) allows XXY to be interested in new ways in the adult characters: not just as a stalemated jury about what to "do"
with Alex but, at least in the father's case, as a lens for illuminating the ways in which parents relate, often against their wishes or before they are ready, to
the sexual and even the gendered maturation of their kids. Amidst a film that can be a bit too tempted to stay stuck in a kind of emotional choke, where everyone
remains dourly or plangently uncertain of what to say, and to whom, and toward what end, the bond between Alex and Kraken feels particularly rich and well-calibrated,
without jutting out too far from the predominating introspection and terseness of the rest of the film.
Visually, rhythmically, and thematically, then, XXY sometimes and indeed increasingly feels a bit clumsier and more congested than it needs to, 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 as well as the filmmakers are humbled in more than
one way by the conceptual intricacies and the high emotional stakes of the essential scenario. If XXY doesn't push as far forward into its story or
characterizations as one might wish, it doesn't feel like a fall backward into tired plot-constructions and family dynamics, as is often the case with low-budget,
queer-targeted cinema. Best of all, it augurs well for future, interesting work from the first-time director and from her fearless, indelible young star.