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Adolescence is a problematic enough time for females, whose bodies and attitudes are in a state of constant flux. In Lucia Puenzo’s XXY, the stakes are even higher, for fifteen-year-old Alex (Ines Efron) is facing a major dilemma: she was born intersex and needs to decide if she wants to undergo surgery to simplify her condition. At an age where life feels particularly complicated and dramatic, Alex is extraordinarily burdened. What makes XXY such an impressive debut is that, considering its subject matter, it can never be mistaken for a work of exploitation. It’s a tenderly wrought drama that uses an abnormal situation to explore the universal, end-of-the-world emotions spawned by adolescence.
XXY is the perfect example of a film that will feel heavy-handed to some viewers and stylistically accurate to others. That depends on how one interprets Puenzo’s directorial vision. For detractors, it will undoubtedly feel like a display of calculated melodrama, in which the slicing of carrots becomes an epic act. But those detractors will be missing Puenzo’s point, for the truth is that she is telling her story through Alex’s strained, adolescent eyes. The heightened gravity and sense of claustrophobia she establishes through her direction aren’t mere stylistic flourishes. This is the world as Alex sees it, a world in which every interaction has the weight of grand tragedy. For adolescents without Alex’s dilemma, the world is intense enough. For her, it’s multiplied.
Alex’s parents don’t know what to do. One of their decisions was to move the family to an under-populated shore town in Uruguay. They figured the solitude would be good for Alex; it would keep her removed from a life of constant confrontation. But, somehow, this plan backfired. In a somewhat ironic twist, the lack of stimulus in Alex’s life created an even more terminal feeling of isolation, and ended up making those inevitable confrontations become even more momentous. Puenzo accurately depicts a world in which each encounter, however seemingly insignificant, lingers over everything that follows. Visually, she and cinematographer Natasha Brier use these expansive Uruguayan landscapes to make a more metaphorical point. Even the widest, most beautiful horizon in the world can’t get an adolescent to step outside of his or her own body; especially not this one.
Puenzo takes an impressively understated approach with regards to her screenplay. More often than not, she chooses hints and intimations over frank explanations. This adds a sense of mystery to the atmosphere, but it also makes the film feel more believable. Alex and her parents have lived with this secret since she was born, existing in a state of oppressive silence. But when her mother tries to do something about it by inviting a surgeon and his family to stay with them and spark a decision, Alex develops a confused relationship with their son, Alvaro (Martin Piroyanski), which complicates the situation even further. No matter how hard they try to protect their daughter, the world keeps creeping in.
Aside from the awkwardness of Alex’s condition, the relationship between Alex and Alvaro is like any other at that age: confused, sweet, traumatic. Puenzo suggests, through Piroyanski’s performance, through offhanded dialogue, through Alex and Alvaro’s interactions, that Alvaro might be going through a sexual identity crisis of his own. That she never addresses this outright makes for a more rewarding experience. XXY is filled with moments such as these, where nothing is overtly explained. We, as viewers, are left to come to our own conclusions. Again, here is where the line thickens as to whether or not one will find Puenzo’s vision to be effective or defective. For those of us who prefer to do our own work and not be coddled every step of the way, it is definitively the former.
— Michael Tully