One of the difficulties of being a teenager is dealing with sex. Sure, there’s the question of whether or not to have it–or with whom–but I’m referring to broader issues, like how one fits him or herself into the sexual world.
I apologize: I know “The Sexual World” sounds like a chain “adult novelty shop,” but bear with me.
The Argentinian film “XXY” gives us a glimpse into the awkward sexual awakening of Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), a teenaged boy who is coming to terms both with his sexuality, as well as his relationship with his father, who admittedly doesn’t like him. Tough, right?
Alvaro’s private hell has nothing on that of 15-year-old Alex, around whom the excellent Argentinean film “XXY” centers. Not only is Alex unsure which gender she prefers sexually, she was born with both sets of sexual equipment–intersex is the acceptable term now, replacing “hermaphrodite.”
Anyway, Alex has been living as a girl, and she passes easily, with beautiful blue-gray eyes and a tomboyish build. She has been taking various hormones to stave off her teenaged masculinization, but when we meet her, she’s fed-up with taking pills, and finally dumps them into the trash.
Alex and her parents–Kraken and Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli)–live outside a tiny fishing village in Uruguay. Kraken works as a biologist, helping rescue and rehabilitate giant sea turtles. One day, Suli’s dear friend, Erika (Carolina Peleritti) arrives, with her arrogant surgeon husband, Ramiro (German Palacios), and their son, the aforementioned Alvaro.
The reason for their visit is not simply to enjoy the idyllic ocean vistas. Suli has invited her friend’s family to visit, because she hopes Ramiro will agree to perform Alex’s gender-assignment surgery.
There are multiple threads woven around Alex’s condition. First, obviously, is the biological question: should she be altered to be female, as she’s been living, or male? Second involves the community. It’s a small, isolated village, but Alex’s secret is still revealed; some idiots deride her as a freak. We learn that the family has moved before due to this issue; Alex has attended multiple schools. Hers has not been an easy 15 years. Next, which gender is Alex attracted to sexually? For example, she could conceivably self-identify as a woman, but be sexually attracted to women AS a woman. We see her struggle with her mixed feelings toward Alvaro, and she shows signs of being attracted to both sexes.
Despite the minefield her life could be, Alex comes off as a truly strong person, a tough girl who can fend for herself. When a friend offended her, she punched him in the nose.
This strength might just be her emotional protective shell. What we discover–when Alvaro, as our proxy, looks through Alex’s notebooks one night–is a deep-seated sense of rage, of self-loathing, of just how monstrous she sees herself. On her dresser is a naked doll with a cigarette stuck to its groin–a freakish addition. The drawings in her notebooks are gut-wrenching. In one of them, Alex has drawn herself wearing a t-shirt reading “HELP!”
It seems everyone has an opinion on what would be best for Alex, and why.
The lone exception is her father, Kraken. The most beautifully rendered performances in “XXY” are by Ricardo Darin as Kraken, and Ines Efron as Alex. Theirs are the toughest roles, and both actors are spot-on. Kraken is a man who is tormented by love for his daughter. He wants what’s best for Alex, but he’s the only person in the movie with the brilliant idea to talk TO Alex about what she wants, not simply to talk ABOUT Alex. Kraken hates bullies, and he refuses to allow himself–or his daughter–to be bullied into major surgery. Ricardo Darin has the same sort of gravitas as a Joe Mantegna or Benicio del Toro. His face is lined, his eyes guarded, but there is no doubt that he–even if nobody else does–has Alex’s back always.
When Ines Efron played Alex, she was 22 years-old. This probably helped her nail down Alex’s personality so well. Alex may be intersexed, but she’s also a 15-year-old. Intersex complicates things, taking normal teen volatility to exponential levels, and Ms Efron is more than up to the role. There are sexual situations in the film that might have been too rough for a 15-year-old actress, even if periodic toplessness weren’t an issue.
I love “XXY”. At the core, it’s about how different people respond to a situation. In this case, that “situation” has a name, a face, and a heart that’s on the verge of shattering. Kraken’s avocation as a sea turtle biologist creates the perfect metaphor. Like his daughter, turtles are tough on the outside, and able to maneuver freely in their own environment. Alex is a tomboy, seemingly fearless, and she moves happily, fearlessly through the isolated dunes, shores, and woods near her home, much as sea turtles are graceful and fast in the water. Take them out of their environment, and both creatures are stuck. More importantly, beneath their hard shells, lay soft, easily damaged inner-workings.
This beautiful slice-of-life film doesn’t have a definitive ending. We see Alex walking with her father. They pass by the camera quietly, and we’re left looking out at the vast, empty sea. The sea–like Alex’s life–will no doubt spawn the occasional storm. This last image, though, implies that with her father’s help, Alex will somehow be able to weather whatever life throws at her.
***************** Below the Line Stuff ***************
“XXY” is an Argentinean, Spanish, and French co-production, adapted for the screen and directed by Lucia Puenzo
In Spanish, with English subtitles.
No MPAA Rating (Definitely would be R, though, for nudity, a scene of sexual violence, a little regular sex, and a little regular violence)
Available on Hulu Plus
For further stuff about the film, visit: XXY on MySpace
For more information on Intersex issues, visit: Intersex Society of North America