“Little Girl” — a documentary about Sasha, an 8-year-old trans girl who lives in a small French town — follows two paths. One is more about her mother Karine. Karine misgenders Sasha in very early scenes but runs a gauntlet of bureaucracy to try and find acceptance for her. The other thread of “Little Girl” is mellower, observational, and more casual. Sasha and her family are shown enjoying a summer at the beach. She dances in the street with an umbrella, and the whole family rides on a rollercoaster.
“Little Girl” risks becoming a didactic lesson for cisgender people, although many — especially parents — would benefit from it. The scene where Karine explains the effects of puberty blockers to her husband leaps out, feeling like a lecture. It doesn’t necessarily look staged, but director Sébastien Lifshitz probably found it essential to include here. But Karine and Sasha’s visits with doctors demonstrate the concept of trans identity as a deviation that needs a mountain of gatekeeping from cis people, even well-meaning ones, to be seen as genuine.
When Sasha, assigned male at birth, was three, she said she wanted to grow up and become a girl. Karine told her that was impossible, and Sasha responded by breaking down in tears. Several years down the road, Karine is trying to do right by her daughter. (Sasha’s father and siblings seem supportive, but they get much less time onscreen.) She and Sasha take the train to see a specialist in Paris, who determines that she really does suffer from gender dysphoria. They get an official letter from the doctor, which was demanded by her school. Up to this point, Sasha grew her hair long but wore masculine clothes and told people she’s a boy in public. The family prepares for her return to school as a girl.
Lifshitz spends far more time talking directly with Karine than the girl himself. For several reasons, that’s understandable. Asking an eight-year-old questions that many adults find difficult would be invasive. A 40-year-old woman is likely to be more articulate, though this leads to the paradox that Sasha is both talked about and seen, without many chances to speak for herself. But Lifhsitz’s choice of camera angles tries to evoke her own perceptions. He keeps it at a child’s eye level. Lifshitz says “Whenever possible, the film adopts Sasha’s point of view. The camera is with her, as close as possible, at her eye level, and that’s what allows us to create a bond of empathy and to understand what she’s going through.”
Karine is tired and angry. She has set out to protect her daughter from the threats she sees on the horizon, but she expects Sasha’s adolescence to be very difficult. In the film’s second scene, she meets with a local doctor who recycles old theories about mothers causing their sons’ gayness. She begins to wonder if her desire to have a girl could’ve affected Sasha when she was still a fetus. But even if she doesn’t get every detail right, her love and determination shine through. This particular family lives up to the idea of being a haven in a heartless world.
“Little Girl” is careful not to become another trans tragedy. It shows Sasha dancing in the ballet classes she loves, but leaves the fact that she was blocked from attending those classes as a girl to verbal description. Her school eventually relents and lets her attend the new year dressed as a girl. The violence caused by rigid gender roles is visible, embedded in systems rather than fists, but not the film’s real subject. While she initially has a hard time making friends when she presented herself in public as a boy, being more open seems to lead to positive interactions with her classmates. (The exact time frame during which “Little Girl” was shot is vague.) The film observes Karine and Sasha’s life rather than editorializing about it, transcending reality TV fare with similar subject matter to feel truly cinematic.
LITTLE GIRL | Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz | Music Box Films | In French with English subtitles | Opens Sept. 17th at Film Forum