Stirring andpoetic, XXY may prove to be one of the most enthralling, memorable films to close Vancouver’s queer film festival.
“It is a very cruel world that divides things,” says director Lucia Puenzo. “We are men or women. Everything’s divided, binary.” Tall with striking eyes, the accomplished (and surprisingly young) novelist-cum-filmmaker speaks passionately about the intersex struggle at the heart of XXY. “The people that fight for places in between have a very strong fight.”
Winner of the Critics’ Week Grand Prize Award at Cannes, XXY follows Alex (Inés Efron), a recalcitrant intersex teen whose burgeoning sexuality calls into question the female life she’s lived until now.
Her parents, Kraken (Ricardo Darin) and Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli), are equally conflicted about her sexual identity and invite a couple and their young son, Álvaro (Martin Piroyansky), for the weekend. Alex soon develops a crush on Álvaro, unaware that his father is a surgeon there to discuss the option of normalization (surgically operating on her to assign one gender).
The movie is adapted from the light-hearted short story Cinismo by author Sergio Bizzio. Puenzo, who is not intersex herself, decided the subject matter needed to be more dramatic after meeting with people like activist Alex Jurgen (from the famed doc Octopusalarm)
“So what was happening to me when writing the draft was a bit of what was happening to Alex [Jurgen] in her real life. She was realizing that her path was not becoming a man but accepting the intersex,” says Puenzo. “Many people say if you are intersex you have to go to one side or the other but she was saying the identity was in the middle.”
Sexual identity has always interested Puenzo; several of the characters in her novels question their gender. In the research for her film, she ended up meeting with families who had gone through the process of normalization, as well as various intersex individuals.
“Those people have now become my close friends. I can see them and their everyday fight when we go out for lunch and the way people look at them,” she says. “They are fighting for that every day, in every action.”
XXY is no stranger to controversy. Various Catholic leaders walked out of a screening and condemned the film outright and its sex scenes —making it a big hit.
“It was a mega success in Italy thanks to them,” says Puenzo, smiling. “It was the best campaign they could do for me.”
Everyone from endocrinologists to intersex activists have weighed in on the film, some praising it for its anti-normalization stance, others objecting to the poetic license used in the title. (XXY is a chromosomal syndrome in men, not specific to intersexuality).
But Puenzo was more concerned with how her new intersex friends would react.
“I was very afraid. When I came back from Cannes I wondered what would happen. And they loved it. They have been the biggest supporters of the film.”
XXY is bolstered by stunning performances, and Puenzo took extra care casting Alex. As the story focuses on delicate and sometimes violent subject matter, the director settled on 23-year-old Efron to play the teenager.
“Everybody told me that she was not the right choice because she was very fragile and very feminine,” Puenzo recalls. “The character in the script was a tomboy and Ines was not that. I did a lot of rewriting because of that, because I knew that she was the one.”
Puenzo feels Alex’s struggle is more universal than it may seem. “That moment when you are not a teenager anymore and you are choosing who you will be. Her being an intersexual is an example [of that] but I think that that fight applies to all of us at a specific point in our lives.”
In addition to a slew of awards, XXY has been released to date in more than 15 countries and has attracted an astounding attendance of 200,000 in its home country of Argentina. This has led to more education and openness about sexual ambiguity.
“The sexual activism, at least in my country, now is very strong,” says Puenzo. “They are fighting, fighting for the right to choose their name and their identity.”
Irrespective of the reception outside the theatres, XXY remains a confident, touching portrait of a young person struggling to fit in and find herself. With subtle performances, exceptional writing and directing, this is one exceptional way to end this year’s festival.