This assured Spanish debut about an eight-year-old transgender girl should create a buzz in Berlin competition

20,000 Species Of Bees

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘20,000 Species Of Bees’

Dir/scr: Estibaliz Urresola Solagruen. Spain. 125mins

What if the problem isn’t an eight-year old – born a boy and raised as such – who knows she is a girl? What if the problem is everybody else? That’s the core question explored in rich and refreshing detail by Basque director Estibaliz Urresola Solagruen in her assured fictional feature debut.

Creates a textured mosaic of voices and views without ever forfeiting our sympathy for its pre-pubescent protagonist

Urresola Solagruen joins the ranks of a new wave of female directors from Spain that also includes the Catalan Golden Bear winner Carla Simon (Alcarras, 2022). The two films have plenty in common. Both are breathless stories of a family under pressure, each member connected in a web whose threads can’t be tugged or cut without everyone feeling the jolt. And both demonstrate a remarkable way with non-professional child actors. As Coco, the trans girl at the centre of 20,000 Species Of Bees, Sofia Otero is never less than compelling, her face a deep pool that becomes a magnet for the audience and Gina Ferrer Garcia’s handheld camera. Arthouse audiences worldwide should respond to the pathos, breadth and humanity of a film that takes a while to build but, when it does, never loses its grip.

This is Solagruen’s first narrative feature after three short films and one full-length documentary, Perhaps the most admirable aspect of her screenplay is the way this busy film creates a textured mosaic of voices and views without ever forfeiting sympathy for its pre-pubescent protagonist. Unlike, say, Lukas Dhont’s 2018 drama Girl – which centres on a 15-year-old trans ballerina – 20,000 Species of Bees does not tell the story only, or even primarily from its heroine’s point of view. It’s a a film set across generations that is about how those generations constrain one another. Coco’s mother Ane (an intense Patricia Lopez Arnaiz) becomes the film’s second focus and also its conflicted moral hinge, trying to do the best by the son who she hasn’t quite yet learned to think of as a daughter while pursuing her career and dealing with two other children and a disapproving mother.

A film that deals with perceptions of gender borders, 20,000 Species of Bees is set across geographical and linguistic frontiers, with both Spanish and Basque being spoken interchangeably in Coco’s family. Leaving her work-stressed husband behind in their current home in the French Basque territory, Ane travels with Coco and her two older siblings to the small town in the Spanish Basque region where she grew up, just as it is planning to celebrate its summer feast day. Ane is a sculptor, like her late father, and makes uneasy attempts at new pieces in his studio, surrounded by his works.

Ane’s mother Lita (Itziar Lazkano) believes that Coco – a family nickname for a child whose male birth name is Aitor – is simply ‘confused’ about her identity, and that Ane indulging it with fingernail painting and long hair is just making things worse. But this country town is not depicted as a place of reactionary rednecks, simply a microcosm of the world at large, at its most normative in communal spaces like the town’s swimming pool, or a baptism ceremony. It’s a conformist, self-policing place which mostly accepts the idea of diverse gender experiences but thinks things can be ‘taken too far’.

Despite her liberal attitudes and deep sympathy for her youngest child’s struggle with issues that can be expressed only by acting up, Ane is in denial. She takes refuge in the idea that kids of Coco’s age can be genderless, and refuses to let go of the child’s male birth name just as she refuses to let go of her father’s artistic legacy – even as his working methods are revealed to be deeply suspect. It’s left to the film’s third main character, Ane’s grounded, independently-minded aunt Lourdes (Ane Gabarain) to simply accept Coco for who she is.

It is Lourdes who channels the theme alluded to in the film’s title. She’s a beekeeper, introducing the initially fearful Coco to the world of her hives in a warm series of sequences with an improvisational feel. The metaphors that buzz around this symbolic honeypot – hive mentality, sensitivity to environmental shocks, the way larvae grow through transformative, skin-shedding stages, the beeswax Ane borrows to make her sculptural casts – enrich our viewing experience while remaining nicely underplayed.

There’s a similar delicacy of touch in the writer-director’s handling of the parallel that will loom large for any cineaste when told this is a Spanish film involving bees about a child trying to find their place in the world: Victor Erice’s 1973 classic The Spirit Of The Beehive. Instead of dodging the comparison, Estibaliz Urresola pays gentle homage, even incorporating a search for a missing girl towards the end, just as in Erice’s masterpiece, which in its turn referenced a similar scene from Frankenstein. It’s a masterful touch in an engaging, authentic, moving film about the way society persists in seeing monsters where there are none.

Production companies: Gariza Films, Inicia Films

International sales: Luxbox,

Producers: Lara Izagirre Garizurieta, Valerie Delpierre

Editing: Raul Barreras

Cinematography: Gina Ferrer Garcia

Production design: Izaskun Urkijo

Main cast: Sofia Otero, Patricia Lopez Arnaiz, Ane Gabarain, Itziar Lazkano, Martxelo Rubio, Sara Cozar, Unax Hayden, Andere Garabieta, Miguel Garces