By David Balfour

xxy-lucia-puenzo.jpgXXY, 2007  

XXY is something of a revelation. It is perhaps the most daring coming of age film to be released for some time. It’s ostensibly the story of Alex who, though raised as a girl, has both male and female genitals. But soon the film opens out into the lives of those around her parents, her friends and the community where she lives. It’s about identity and the pain of secrecy. As the film progresses it ardently refuses to be drawn into typical narrative structures or characters.

Teen years are commonly chaotic and confusing as hormones begin to surge unpredictably – Alex’s experience is all the more tempestuous being simultaneously male and female. Confused by her hormones, her desires and her identity her behaviour is almost bipolar shifting from erratic, wild and uncontrollable, to reserved and sullen. Her sexual awakening takes unexpected and sometimes violent course.

The arrival of some friends of her parents comes at a time when Alex has just broken up with her best friend. These visitors are not what they seem. The father is a surgeon and Alex’s mother has invited him there to talk with them about surgery for Alex’s condition. This upsets Alex’s father, he has tried to create a life where Alex won’t be afraid of her body. Surgery is, as he is concerned, about denial as much as acceptance. But he too has been in denial for much of Alex’s life, having moved his family to remote area to avoid questions about who and what she is. As Alex begins puberty these issues re-immerge. It’s an old moral; you can’t run away from your problems.

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Alex gets close to Alvaro, the visitor’s son. He is an awkward shy boy, confused by her alternating moods. Sometimes reserved and uncommunicative and then boisterous and teasing. She seduces him - she seems unable to control her sexual desire. Both are virgins and proceed with first-time mixture unstoppable desire and hesitation. Watching them tear at each other clothes is not erotic – it’s harrowing. Knowing that soon Alvaro will find out Alex’s secret creates a pervasive mood of impending doom. It will confuse him and further shame and hurt her – hell of a first time. But as in suspense film just when we think one thing is going to happen, the tables are turned. It is a scene as exhilarating and confronting as any I can remember.

Alex is played by Ines Efron. It is an aggressive and demanding performance – one that asks for attention then spits in your face for looking. It is a study in complexity and merging of identities. She walks like a boy when acting like a girl. Her body, her hormones, and emotions look to others confused. But for Alex she is beginning to realise what is normal for her. A bold and dangerous place to try to inhabit in this world. Ines is utterly memorable in it.

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The characters are wilful and spiky; the dialogue in the scenes is clipped. It is an increasingly rare film where you have to work to connect the dots of the characters, their intentions and their relations. For a coming of age story there isn’t much easy or happy resolution. As the surgeon is sent packing, it still remains what will happen to Alex. She seems determined to stay the way she is, in-between, but is also tired of the secrecy around it. She is wary of people’s interest in her – seeing it as selfish. With Alvaro who thinks he has found a great love, she knows he is actually in denial of his own sexuality.

By no means is this a perfect film – there are times when the tone wavers dramatically. Some decisions are too on the nose – particularly the mother chopping a carrot while wondering whether the Alex should have surgery. Also, some themes emerge too late. The relationship between Alvaro and his father, which should counterpoint Alex and her father, is not given enough space and comes too late in the film. When Alvaro’s dad tells him that he was worried he is gay it feels out of place. If it had been earlier it would have given greater poignancy to Alvaro and Alex’s coupling.

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Technically the film is also wonderfully shot. Filmed in cold blues and greys, it looks more like the Northern Europe than South America. Gliding up and down the barren beaches and oppressive seascape compliments the awkward torment of the characters.

Long after seeing the film powerful moments remains; the erotically unexpected entangling between Alex and Alvaro; and the menacing power of Alex’s scowl as she looks back at the world which is eager to stare at her. The director’s, Lious Puenzo, study of sexual identity, parental authority and social alienation is striking also for its control. In holding back much it actually brings you closer to it and to Alex.

David Balfour is a writer and producer based in London.