My favorite film of the Portland International Film Festival -- the Argentine film "XXY" -- opens this weekend at the Livingroom Theaters in Portland. It's the story of 15-year-old Alex, who is living as a girl but who actually possesses both male and female sex organs. (The favored term is now intersexuality, though historically Alex would have been termed a hermaphrodite.) She and her parents live in a remote coastal town in Uruguay where her father works as a marine biologist, and the harsh beauty of the setting particularly suits the story and the subject matter. Adolescence is fraught with confusion and even danger for everyone, but Alex faces particularly difficult challenges. She has decided, for reasons we sense she would be unable to articulate, to stop taking the hormones that have made it possible for her to live as female, just at the time when she is under increased pressure to surgically elect a gender. The film turns a steady gaze on her uneasy struggle, and on the unease it inspires in those who love her and those who know her hardly at all.
I found the film gripping from the first frame; it forced me to struggle with issues I had not even thought to look for. I honestly thought the story was headed in one direction only to discover that my assumptions reflected my own failure of vision regarding the subject of gender. Why are we so attached to gender identity? What assumptions inform our need to identify certain gender roles? What does it mean to be a sexual being? And more universally, how do we truly love those closest to us? How does one form an identity that is truly one's own and not imposed externally?
I noticed when I looked at some reviews that the film seems to have had a better reception in Europe than it has here; it has had only very limited release here, though it won a critic's award at Cannes. Also, nearly all the reviews I read were written by men and, as I find often, only one or two expressed a reception anywhere close to the joyous sense of challenge that I experienced. As it happens, the film reflects the work of two very talented women: it is the first directorial effort of a 31-year-old writer-director (Lucia Puenzo, daughter of the Argentine filmmaker Luis Puenzo, who won a foreign-language Oscar for "The Official Story" in 1986), and both Puenzo and the young woman who portrays Alex (Ines Efron, in a miraculous performance) demonstrate a remarkably sure hand with difficult material. I left feeling energized to think more consciously about questions I hadn't known were even there--and in my book, you could hardly wish for more from a film than that.