Sébastien Lifshitz’s acclaimed documentary Little Girl just launched on digital platforms Tuesday, the film closely following a small-town French family, having accepted the gender of their 8-year-old trans daughter, Sasha, and working to ensure she can be herself authentically in all parts of her life.
Lifshitz has directed a number of documentaries centering on LGBTQ themes, and it’s clear he took care to ensure that he was portraying the story of the family, and the conversations around trans people and gender dysphoria, in an accurate and responsible way.
From the beginning, it’s clear Lifshitz has a knack for imagery: The initial shot is silent and long, showing Sasha getting ready in the morning with an emotional instrumental score over it. Another scene shows Sasha in her ballet class, presenting as male and clearly uncomfortable but living her everyday life all the same.
It’s a beautiful film from the start, closely examining the joy and heartache of the trans experience through the lens of one family.
We enter the film seeing Sasha living as a girl in every part of her life except school and her ballet class. Her mother, Karine, initially felt as if Sasha’s transness was something she did—the fact that she really wanted to have a girl during pregnancy and feeling let down learning the sex of her child. She recounts moments early in Sasha’s life, as early as 2-and-a-half to 3 years old, where Sasha clearly showed a preference to live as a girl.
Karine recalls a moment when she told Sasha that she “can’t be a girl” at age 4, which was met with a breakdown and “real tears of pain,” prompting Sasha to ask, with genuine panic on her face, “What happens if I can’t be a girl?” After Sasha tried on her first dress, an experience rich in gender euphoria, Sasha’s family didn’t look back.
After a discussion with a local psychologist, who recommends they talk to a specialist, Karine and Sasha take a train to see Dr. Anne Bargiacchi in Paris (in part to get an official diagnosis to give to her school to allow her to present as a girl), leading to one of the most moving sequences in the film.
Focus rarely strays from Sasha’s face as Bargiacchi is talking to her and her mother about gender dysphoria, assuring both of them Sasha’s experience is something many others have as well. The relief from both of them is palpable, Karine understanding that she is doing right by her child and Sasha having an adult, and near-stranger, affirming and supporting her identity.
Sasha is incredibly self-aware, of herself and everything around her, and, at 8 years old, incredibly strong. She clearly has a guard up, maybe in part knowing what she does and does not want to say in front of a camera, and in part because that’s just the way she’s had to live, compartmentalizing parts of herself in different contexts of her life. It’s heartbreaking to see the tears well up in her eyes as Bargiachhi talks about Karine’s support.
“Something’s making you sad,” Bargiachhi says.
Sasha doesn’t really have to say it. You can feel the weight of her experience in life so far and the challenges she’s had to face that the vast majority of other children don’t. It connects back to a point Karine touches on several times in the film: “Sasha doesn’t have the life she deserves. Sasha doesn’t have her childhood.”
Who is the culprit? It’s clear that the people who are making Sasha’s life challenging are the cisgender adults in her life who don’t understand and don’t want to understand. Sasha’s father implies that the politics of the town and school are part of the problem, with a more conservative and religious influence.
It’s not the kids—Her siblings are incredibly affirming. As soon as she comes out to her school friends, they understand and start using her correct pronouns. Karine frames it nicely, “There are children who are perfectly accepting of her. I would like adults to be the same.”
It mirrors violence and challenges trans people worldwide, how the detriment of the trans experience is truly because of the cisgender people enforcing and policing social constructs around gender with little wiggle room to stray from the confines of a cisgender binary.
While I cried a number of times, this film is full of joyous moments, and many of those tears were happy.
After she starts seeing Dr. Bargiachhi and begins disclosing to friends, Sasha’s confidence immediately improves. I found myself snapping and clapping alone in my apartment hearing some of the dialogue that speaks to conversations and interactions trans people have all the time, like Bariachhi’s assurance, “Your body is your business,” when speaking to Sasha about unwelcome questions. I love her family, who treats her exactly as any family of a trans child should and fully go to bat for her.
And while, by the end of the film, Sasha is clearly coming more into her authentic self, the subtext is clear: Being trans in our world is immensely challenging and dangerous. As Sasha’s family celebrate the wins throughout the film, Karine is explicit toward the end about the road ahead.
“She is going to suffer. Think teenagers, think first love, think about all that’s lying in wait for her,” Karine says. “Insults, threats, getting beat up—It’s all coming her way. All of it.”
Little Girl gives an experiential and informative base to those who may not know trans people or be misinformed on gender dysphoria and the trans experience. It takes into account the very real, lived experiences of trans people, especially binary trans people, and calls into question how the world could be if more people could open their hearts to compassion and understanding of trans and gender-diverse people.
As Sasha’s father puts it, in regard to the school’s many barriers for Sasha to present authentically, “Over things that are quite simple, they really get their heads in a muddle.”
Read the original review on the OUT FRONT Magazine website.