Published Sep 28, 2015When Alexandra-Therese Keining's third feature film, Girls Lost, opens, there's a title card denoting that conventional thinkers probably won't have a great appreciation for it. While it's a somewhat alienating and seemingly defensive statement, it makes sense given the subject matter and speaks to that oft-unspoken understanding that marginalized people have about the amusing solipsism, literal interpretations and embarrassing confidence of heterosexual male society.
Depicting the friendship between three outsider best friends — Kim (Tuva Jagell), Bella (Wilma Holmén) and Momo (Louise Nyvall) — this supernatural teen examination of pubescent self-awareness presents a deceptively mainstream premise. After the hyperbolized gender divide is established — the popular boys at school physically and verbally abuse the girls regularly — a horticultural mishap leads to the ingestion of a sweet-smelling juice from a plant the girls are growing and a temporary change in gender.
This premise was a staple of '80s American cinema and typically led to protracted locker-room scenes and hilariously awkward romantic dynamics (Two boys flirting with each other: How ridiculous and hilarious!), which is why it works effectively in an ironic capacity here. When Kim, Bella and Momo emerge as teen boys, Kim discovers a sense of comfort and confidence that she never had before. She isn't forced to perform gender in a comic way that reassures audiences of norms; she's naturally at ease and the narrative takes on a more serious form.
What's also intriguing and refreshingly honest about Keining's playful little gender analysis is how it tackles sexuality. While the basic story here denotes transgender awareness, with Kim discovering his male identity, there's also a smart dialogue about how he then expresses sexual desire. Kim is attracted to men. When he transforms, he's instantly drawn to a rebellious and aggressive young man, enjoying the freedom that lacking self-consciousness and consideration of others brings. But when Kim transforms back into a girl, the attraction is different; it's uneasy and unnatural.
Complicating this further is the inkling that Momo has romantic feelings for Kim — but only when Kim is female — and struggles to understand why Kim isn't attracted to her when she's in male form.
This presentation of nascent sexuality and the many complexities it brings for different people is quite insightful and sensitively handled. There's nothing exploitative or gimmicky about Girls Lost; it's a smartly rendered supernatural metaphor that heightens the alienating confusion that stems from acknowledging sexuality and how closely tethered it is to identity. Keining raises points about desire, the distinctions between gender-based peer bonding and the fragile power dynamics of friendship while exploiting the populist trend of the teen fantasy format.
Where Girls Lost falters somewhat is in consolidating theoretical concerns and the demands of a functioning narrative. From the outset, there's an awkwardness about the basic storyline; even the handling of high school bullying is sort of broadly exaggerated in a way that makes it difficult to swallow. Similarly, the social dynamics of the gender change are virtually instantaneous and handled without any real consideration of social idiosyncrasy. Once the girls turn into boys, they simply insert themselves in an existing male social circle without any real logical progression or resistance. There also isn't much in the form of natural interaction once the plot starts pushing forward, meaning that all discussions are pared down to their theoretical purpose with characters bluntly stating their motivations or making decisions that aren't entirely plausible. This results in a relatively messy story that sacrifices itself for the sake of intellectual discourse.
It's important to note that Keining's work here is vital. This is the sort of dialogue — a dialogue representing the pubescent angst and sexual desires of a very diverse group of people — that we need more of in popular entertainment. It's just a bit of a letdown that there's very little attention paid to basic human nuance or the emotional drive of the story, leaving Girls Lost to be an intriguing and uneven minor disappointment.