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Written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, XXY tells the story of fifteen-year-old Alex as she navigates the challenges of growing up. Alex is intersexual, and though the film explores that experience in a highly personal and sensitive way, this story stands out most to me for what it portrays about parenting and teenage identity. It’s about wielding love over fear, about parents realizing that “wanting the best” for their children sometimes means something unexpected. (AEL: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker
In a seaside town in Uruguay, “Alex’s” (Inés Efron) mother “Suli” (Valeria Bertuccelli) has invited some adult family friends for a visit. While Suli pretends the visit is meaningless, Alex quickly realizes that the visit is for more than friendship. As Alex befriends the family’s son, Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky), she finds out that the father “Ramiro” (Germán Palacios) is a plastic surgeon, specializing in removing “deformities,” as Alvaro describes it—removing an eleventh finger, for instance. Alex bristles at this idea, though it isn’t yet clear why.
We know something is up with Alex, but it takes a long time to realize exactly what. The family moved to this quiet town from Argentina, hoping to keep a secret and escape bullying. Alex punched her best friend “Vando” (Luciano Nóbile) for a reason she won’t share, and now she’s being expelled from school. “Who did you tell?” her father asks her.
Gradually it is revealed that Alex is intersex, having both male and female sex characteristics. She has been taking medication to suppress male characteristics, and she passes as a cis girl. She falls in love with boys and they with her.
At fifteen, Alex isn’t interested in the medication anymore, and she doesn’t care so much about hiding her sexual characteristics, either. Her problems are external: there are people around her who don’t know what to make of her and sometimes act violently toward her, and her parents, who worry that revealing her identity will only bring her more abuse.
Alex’s mother, Suli, and her father “Kraken” (Ricardo Darín) struggle with what to do to make life the best for their daughter. Generally, Suli is of the mind that Alex’s life will be most comfortable and happiest if she can be as close to cis as possible. It’s Kraken who enforced the decision that Alex not have an operation as a baby to remove her male genitalia. But Kraken struggles with the decisions too. He visits an intersex man to ask him about his experience, and the intersex man asserts that forcing gender assignment surgery on a baby is cruel. Kraken is glad he let Alex express her own gender, but he wonders if it would have been easier for all of them if he and Suli had chosen a gender for her.
This isn’t to say that Suli is a villain because she would prefer Alex to pass as cis. Her kind face is often furrowed with worry for Alex. When Kraken asks her why she brought the plastic surgeon and his family to their home, she says sadly, “I just want them to meet her.” It’s not that she wants to force or coerce Alex into having an operation. She just likes that the surgeon presents a possible solution, something Alex might even seek out herself.
There’s another layer of parent-child tension here: Ramiro, the surgeon, worries that his son Alvaro is gay because he likes Alex. Like Alex’s family, this family dynamic is nuanced. Is Ramiro homophobic for threatening his son against being gay? Or is he more transphobic because he sees Alex as a man and as a threat when she clearly identifies as a girl? Or is he mostly worried Alvaro will face discrimination and abuse in Argentina’s conservative social environment? Does any of that matter? Or is it better if a parent can just forget all of that fear and love his child for who he is?
Lucía Puenzo explores all of this sensitively and beautifully. She portrays these teenagers joyfully. The camera doesn’t shy away from heartbreaking and difficult scenes, either. It feels like the director of the film is always standing quietly in Alex’s corner.
It is striking to realize that Alex never struggles with her gender identity. She is happy being a girl, and she chose to live as a girl from a young age. She just doesn’t want to act as girls “should” act or look exactly as they “should” look. Her challenges come when she has to fit a strict definition of “girl” with hormone-suppressing medication and “straight” sexual behavior. It’s a beautiful moment when her parents realize that—when Alex can just be Alex.
© Amelie Lasker (9/28/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Martín Piroyansky as “Alvaro” and Inés Efron as “Alex.”
Middle Photo: Martín Piroyansky as “Alvaro” and Inés Efron as “Alex.”
Bottom Photo: Ricardo Darín as “Kraken” and Inés Efron as “Alex.”
Photo Credits: Sebastián Puenzo
Though Alex’s close friends are boys, and her father is the parent with whom she interacts the most, there are several women-only conversations as well. Mothers talk about Alex, and Alex talks to mothers about herself.
My favorite moment in the whole movie passes the test. (This is a bit of a spoiler if a film with such a quiet, character-driven plot can have spoilers.) Alex’s mother, Suli, finally realizes what Alex needs, how much the gender-based pressure is hurting her daughter. As Alex lays in her lap, Suli promises her no more medications or thoughts of surgery.