Girls Lost, Alexandra-Therese Keining’s latest film, tells the story of three girls living in modern day Sweden. Momo (Louise Nyvall), Bella (Wilma Holmén) and Kim (Tuva Jagell) are social outcasts, bullied by the boys at schools because they’re not conventionally attractive. This all changes when they find a flower, whose nectar transforms them into boys. They find that everything is different as a boy – they’re perceived as better at sports, and they have a sort of swagger that they previously lacked. After living as boys for a day, they gain the confidence to stand up to their bullies. For Bella and Momo, it’s all a bit of fun – they gain self-confidence, have fun together and see what it’s like to live as a boy. But for Kim it’s different. At the start of the film, Kim mentions that she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin. She feels like there’s a zipper and that if she pulls it, she’ll find someone else underneath. Kim feels like her true self when she’s been transformed into a boy. But as the flower starts to wilt, tensions rise amongst the three girls as Kim realises she’ll do anything to remain a boy.
Girls Lost is both a film for teenagers and for adults. The Toronto International Film Festival advertises it as “a kind of transgender Twilight (albeit much edgier)”. This is not so far off – Twilight uses supernatural themes as a metaphor for adolescent desire. The function of the supernatural is slightly different in Girls Lost – the magical flower is more plot device than metaphor. In this way, the start of Girls Lost may be read a sort of transgender fantasy. What if we all lived in a world where we could try experiment with different genders and identity, just for a day? Would that enrich us and our understanding of others, or would it complicate things by allowing ourselves to feel truly comfortable for the first time in our lives, before snatching it away?
From the outset, Kim seems uncomfortable with herself. She stands in front of the mirror, combing her hair back and forth in the way most teenagers do. But she also has a drawing on her mirror – an image of a face, whose mouth unzips to reveal and face underneath. Her room is covered in icons of androgyny – David Bowie and Grace Jones – in a foreshadowing of her journey to come. Kim is an excellent character – she’s nuanced and flawed and Jagell’s performance is riveting. Girls Lost is very much about Kim’s experience. While an interesting experience, and an important one to portray, especially for an audience of teenagers, this does render the film a little flat. The other characters lack personality and agency. There’s a bizarre scene where Kim tells Momo she has realised she wants to live as a boy. It’s an important scene and I was expecting to see some discussion between best friends about why Kim feels this way and how Momo can support her. But instead, Momo replies out of the blue that she is in love with Kim and that if Kim likes boys she can stay in her male form even though she prefers being a female. This seemed a nonsensical development for several reasons. First, the only explanation for Momo’s feelings is a sketch she has of Kim’s face on her desk. Second, even if Momo wanted to stay as a boy, the flower is dying and Kim cannot even stay as a boy, so why would Momo be able to? Perhaps I’m being too literal here. In the film’s defence, Kim is equally frustrated by Momo’s response and just gets up and leaves.
The main strength of Girls Lost lies not in its portrayal of the transgender experience, but rather in its portrayal of the adolescent experience. It is common for films to shy away from how cruel teenagers can be to eachother. The opening scenes of Girls Lost are picturesque – the three girls look like fairies, playing with flowers in a greenhouse, their hair glistening in the soft, dappled lights. This is how we imagine childhood to be. The reality is so much darker. The reality of adolescence is represented unsparingly in the gritty later scenes – the scene where the girls are referred to as “whores” and “cunts” in front of teachers who do nothing, the scene where a group of boys sexually harass Bella and pull her shirt off to see her breasts and the scene where the boy Kim loves pushes him to the ground and kicks him and then threatens to set him on fire. The juxtaposition of these earlier scenes with the later ones is unsettling, and elevates Girls Lost from your average teenage coming-of-age films. Even films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which touch on the difficult topics of depression and child abuse, only show how teenagers can support and love eachother. Girls Lost shows how teenagers are equally capable of tearing eachother apart.
Girls Lost is an interesting film and worth a watch. It is an excellent film about adolescence and an average film about the transgender experience – it raises many questions, but answers hardly any of them. Indeed, the ending could be read as somewhat bleak and discouraging. I would say the film is less supernatural and more magical realist (this is an important distinction to make because it informs how you read the ending), and that this works. I also loved the film’s soundtrack – the sparse, electronic beats of Sophia Ersson compound the film’s otherworldliness in the most intimate way, like sleeping in the womb of an alien.