Girls Lost (2016): Written by Jessica Schiefauer and Alexandra-Therese Keining, directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining. Starring: Tuva Jagell, Emrik Oehlander, Wilma Holmen, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, Louise Nyvall, and Alexander Gustavsson. Running Time: 106 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Jessica Schiefauer.
Girls Lost features a fascinating mix of reality and fantasy. It’s depictions of the horrors of high school years are brutal in their accuracy, yet its central conceit of a group of teenage lesbians struggling with their burgeoning sexual and gender identities revolves around a twist of the supernatural to push the plot into motion, the sort of mix that seems off-putting at first, but ultimately lends the film its own unique magic.
Kim, Momo, and Bella, lesbians all, already carry the stigma of being “the outcasts” for pretty much everyone in their town, but they cope as best they can by tightly sticking together at all times, especially at school where it’s most needed. Whenever they so much as enter the building the entire tone of the scene shifts, making everything seem vaguely threatening. I meant it when I referred to these parts of the film as brutal- in one of the most chillingly uncomfortable scenes I’ve watched all year, a group of particularly aggressive guys in their gym class separate one of them, push her against a wall, and try to force her to undress for them. And if you think any of the teachers would come to their aid, even in clear cases of assault, you can forget it.
When not in School Survival Mode, they spend most of their time in a greenhouse, where they tend to all manner of flowers. In a shipment of seeds, they find a strange one without a label, and decide to find out what it is. It proceeds to fully sprout into a large, black flower that very night, and upon examining it they find that the flower excretes an oozy, vanilla-smelling liquid, which, when consumed, physically transforms them into boys for the course of a single night, allowing them to wander the town totally unrecognized by their classmates.
Momo and Bella find this bizarre turn more amusing than anything else, a way to have some fun at parties without being noticed or attacked, but for Kim, their first night as boys about town touches something deep within her, something she’d previously only suspected was there. After befriending another boy from their school while transformed (it’s made clear later on he does not recognize her when she’s a girl), she also starts to wonder if she has feelings for him, throwing everything she thought she knew about herself right up in the air. Is she a girl or a boy? Homosexual or straight? How can she possibly find out?
The swirling emotional complexities of the changes wrought on them all through this strange plant are captured expertly by a brilliant bit of double-casting; the girls themselves are solid enough, but are further supplemented by the boys that play their male versions, who perfectly mimic their respective physical tics or speech patterns, and even resemble them enough that you can immediately note who’s who.
There is no explanation for the plant- what it is, where it comes from, how its powers work, and why it suddenly starts to die halfway into the film- which will annoy some, but since this is a character-driven piece about the struggles of adolescence in general and one person’s crisis of identity specifically, worrying about this is missing the woods for the trees. What I did have a problem with was a few moments in the third act where a few of the people start to act in ways entirely out of character, seemingly without motivation to do so, but thankfully they don’t derail what is otherwise a very powerful ending
Witnessing Kim’s journey of personal discovery is agonizing, painful, and wonderful all at once, capturing so many of the moments of intense emotion growing up brings that can’t be put into words. They can only be seen, or heard, or borne out in quick looks and small gestures, and it’s a mastery of the smallness of some of the defining moments of our growing years that make Girls Lost a special bit of filmmaking. Highly recommended, especially for those who’ve struggled or still struggle with their own gender identities.