Three girls link hands and walk through high school. Their fellow students inflict a cacophony of misogynistic abuse upon them. It continues to the point where one of them is reduced to tears as she’s groped and her top ripped off. Their crime? To be a bit different – a bit too masculine, or too shy, a bit too overweight. They protest to their teachers, who tell them to “deal with it.”
These are Kim, Bella and Momo, and for at least the first act of Girls Lost you’d assume you’re in for a realist Swedish teen drama. Then the girls hatch a mysterious seed which grows into an alien-looking black plant. The girls sip its nectar and, to their surprise, realize it temporarily switches your gender. That night the bullied girls morph into popular boys and see the world through fresh eyes.
They wake back as girls the next day, but Kim realizes that she feels more natural as a boy than a girl. The stage is then set for a spiral of addiction, Kim falling in love with bicurious thug Tony and growing distant from her old friends.
There’s a lot to like in Girls Lost. First and foremost is the intelligence and empathy with which writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining approaches trans issues. Kim’s gender dysphoria is shown to us both in vivid poetic language (“I feel like I should be able to unzip my skin and have my real self emerge”) and the obvious care in whihc the way the male and female versions of the characters are costumed and shot.
As a girl, Kim is played by a sullen Tuva Jagell, glaring out from over cheekbones you can set your watch by and a boyish pixie cut. As a boy she’s Emrik Öhlander, suddenly experiencing unfiltered joy at the world, barely able to keep a grin from his face. The join between the two is invisible, Jagell and Öhlander two sides of the same coin.
Magically transforming into an opposite gender version of yourself is the ultimate trans fantasy, and achieved in the real world only through years of painful and hard work – therapy, hormones and surgery. Yet Lost Girls‘ Cinderella transformation is also a curse, Kim getting a taste of paradise and then having it cruelly snatched away. As she becomes addicted to the nectar she alienates her friends and begins to morph into some Mr. Hyde-ish caricature of masculinity. It’s a credit to the writing that, by the midway point you feel that this film could go anywhere.
Which is why it’s such a shame that the film collapses in the final act. Simply put, while Kim’s motivations are crystal clear, everyone else ends up spinning off into confusion. Characters suddenly profess their love for one another, then rescind that, then say they were just kidding. People start burning stuff down, beating each other up and waving guns about. The final blow is a crushingly lame ambiguous ending that resolves nothing, feeling as if Keining has run out of ideas.
This frustration is compounded by the fact that there’s so much to recommend and praise here. The gender transformation sequences are a marvel to behold, especially for a relatively low budget indie production. Part of this is the absolutely perfect casting for each character’s male and female versions, which allows a CGI morph so smooth that it’s genuinely difficult to tell where one actor ends and the other begins.
Everything else looks great, too: the way Keining contrasts grimy, desaturated realism and a gently fairytale aesthetic of soft forest floors and magical plants is strongly reminiscent of the best of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also nice recurring metamorphosis imagery of cells dividing, butterflies merging from their chrysalises and blossoming flowers, not to mention Sophia Ersson’s lovely electro-pop score.
All this makes its obvious flaws that much more of a shame. Keining is obviously a talented filmmaker and Girls Lost brims over with ambition and skill, but it’s a few yards short of greatness.
Girls Lost fills the magical realism, gender dysphoria, Swedish indie teen drama-shaped hole in your life. It's just a damn shame it all falls apart in the final act.