With Little Girl, Sébastien Lifshitz, the French filmmaker with a proven track record in handling LGBTQI+ themes (Wild Side, The Invisibles), trains his camera on a very modern crisis: that of a couple facing up to the realisation one of their offspring, eight-year-old Sasha, wants a change of pronouns - that a child christened as a he would feel altogether more comfortable if everyone around were to refer to her as a she. (As one onlooker points out, practically the only straightforward aspect of this situation is that the kid's given name works equally well for a boy or a girl.) Lifshitz arrives at the family's home on the outskirts of Paris keen to neutralise some of the more heated discourse around trans kids. Sasha, a wide-eyed sweetie with a Minnie Mouse backpack who'd probably be quite happy to spend all afternoon chasing bubbles around the garden with her brother and sister, actually makes for a far less interesting or revealing study than her mother, convinced that the root cause of this confusion of genders is her own latent disappointment at giving birth to a boy after suffering several miscarriages with girls. Dad, by contrast, is notably matter-of-fact about the whole affair, as blokes can be: asked how he'll refer to Sasha from here on out, he shrugs "my kid, that's all". We join this household as Sasha gets a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, then watch a sticking point emerge as our long-haired heroine's school refuses to update Sasha's records before the new term begins. Elsewhere, however, it becomes clear that Sasha is supported, at every stage in this discovery process, by people who love this little girl - parents, doctors, an adoring film crew - and want only the best for her going forward. Isn't that the thing? But if it is the thing, then how on earth does anyone set to making a dramatically involving documentary about it?
Well, for one thing, Lifshitz isn't here to manufacture or stir up conflict. (Heaven knows there's enough of that elsewhere in the media, and especially online.) Instead, he accompanies this family into a summery, school-holiday Paris, a clutch of gentle Ravel and Debussy cues in hand, with the noble aim of providing some reassurance: he knows this has become a big issue, but also that there's value in talking it through, and in seeing an ostensibly ordinary family working their way through it one day at a time. He wisely shows us Sasha's mum (a figure I suspect gender-critical viewers will likely have things to say about) explaining to her husband that if their child wants to revert to being male at a later stage, she'll be entirely free to do so; and though the contentious matter of puberty blockers is still a ways off, Lifshitz adds a scene with a doctor explaining their purpose and effects. At no point did I get the impression Sasha was being pressured into making a choice, either to compensate for her mother's miscarriages or to generate an eyecatching documentary, or - indeed - to get a free pass into the girls' changing room. (If my experience of being eight years old is anything to go on, most of your energies at that age are focused on avoiding P.E. altogether.) What's evident, however, is the distress of the child at not being allowed to live the life she wants for herself - and that it cuts substantially deeper than the distress of the child told they can't have chocolate buttons at the supermarket checkout. There are a few weakspots. I wanted more on the family's socioeconomic standing (or just to find out what mum and dad do), which surely has some bearing on the freedoms they're seeking for their child; and it's a pity that Lifshitz couldn't get access to Sasha's school, site of whatever conflict there is in this story. Yet the filmmaker's quietly observational handling of Sasha's transformation forms its own statement, gentle but defiant, that such transformations need not be a crisis, an existential threat, or cause for a hullabaloo. Little Girl leaves us to make what we will of this small, everyday transitional moment - while asserting, in its lovely final image, that Sasha is going to be whoever she wants to be, whether you want her to be or not.
Little Girl opens at London's Curzon Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, from Friday.