Dir: Lucia Puenzo. Arg/Sp/Fr. 2007. 91 mins
The familiar agonies of adolescence are given a fresh slant and a perceptive treatment in XXY, a quietly impressive first feature from novelist and documentary maker Lucia Puenzo, daughter of The Official Story (1985) director Luis Puenzo.
Refusing to sensationalise the subject of a teenager with genital ambiguity, she creates a thoughtful, well-measured reflection on sexuality, identity and the struggle to follow the heart's desire. Wider Festival exposure seems guaranteed but there should also be sufficient critical support of an emerging talent to generate theatrical possibilities, especially in territories that have backed the emerging new voices of Latin American cinema like Lucrecia Martel.
Ines Efron is also a talent worth noting as Alex, a solitary, tomboyish 15-year-old living with her parents in an isolated fishing port on the Uruguayan shoreline. Her fierce eyes and surly manner eloquently convey the anger and confusion of someone who believes that the world considers her a freak and that it might be right.
The family's self-imposed isolation ends when they are visited by two friends from their former life in Buenos Aires, who arrive with their 16-year-old son Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky).
It is clear that Alex harbours some dark secret that has made her aggressive and uncommunicative. We know that she has been suspended from school for punching a boy in the face. Puenzo doesn't prolong the suspense any longer than necessary and we learn that Alex was born with a genital ambiguity. She has been raised as a girl, taking a cocktail of hormones and drugs to suppress any masculine characteristics. Now, she is reaching the age that she must decide whether she wants to undergo an operation that is in effect a castration. Unknown to her father, one of the guests from Buenos Aires is a surgeon visiting more out of medical concern than sociability.
Inevitably, there is an attraction between Alex and Alvaro but it develops in such a sensitively handled way that it serves as a means for both of them to discover who they are and where they might fit in the adult world that is opening up before them.
Puenzo's strength as a writer/director lies in enriching our understanding of Alex by following the journeys of several other characters. There are strong scenes in which her father confronts someone who has already faced and resolved Alex's dilemma by choosing to live as a man. Alvaro's attraction to the girl that everyone considers a freak also prompts him to reflect on his sexuality. We understand that life is difficult for everyone even if Alex's difficulties are more acute and unusual than most.
A little on the slow side, XXY remains absorbing because it never loses sight of the humanity in this story and never resorts to cheap sentimentality.
Jose Maria Morales
from a story by Sergio Bizzio