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Wisconsin Film Festival: Childhood and adolescent transitions

Trish Connelly reviews two standout documentaries about overcoming adversities to self-actualization—“Little Girl” and “Try Harder!” —in this year’s virtual fest.

While the Wisconsin Film Festival is not hosting any in person events this year, their all-virtual 2021 lineup is a bit of a gift to anyone who relishes crafting their own custom viewing itinerary. Before the films are available and the fest officially commences its 8-day run on the morning of May 13 (at 9:45 Central), we’re kicking off our annual coverage with a sensitive consideration of two documentaries on modern youth, Little Girl and Try Harder!


In order to make sense of the world, we often rely on categorical stereotypes— especially as they relate to sex and gender. Our tendency to place strict confines on the supposed binaries of masculinity and femininity leaves little to no room for the myriad ways we invoke sexual exploration and gender nuances. French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz’s intimate documentary Little Girl (2020) explores the multifaceted layers of seven-year-old Sasha Kovac’s gender dysphoria as she navigates rejection and confusion from adults and peers alike in her working class community in rural France. Stylistically restrained in order to keep its characters in full focus, the film interviews Sasha’s immediate family to articulate the ways they’ve come to accept their daughter’s identity as well as their struggles to gain acceptance from the general public. 

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In an early introduction to Sasha, we watch her performing in her ballet class, albeit dressed in pants and long sleeves to distinguish her from the other girls. As her classmates move fluidly and delicately through the choreography, Sasha’s eyes remain fixated on following her peers, which causes her to second-guess her movements. “You don’t have to copy your friend,” remarks the instructor, exemplifying the uncertainties Sasha carries within her in an attempt to assimilate. At home, she remains much more at ease with a self-assured and content expression on her face as she tries on pink outfits in her own wardrobe and plays dress-up with her Barbies.

Growing up with three other siblings who remain unfazed by Sasha’s proclivities towards a more feminine expression, we witness the unwavering support she receives at home.Although, the film also recognizes that it wasn’t always a smooth transition. In one visit to a specialized therapist, Sasha’s mother Karine admits she had been hoping for a girl during her pregnancy and believes this to be the catalyst for Sasha’s gender dysphoria, causing extreme guilt and sadness that remains difficult to detach from. While still occasionally struggling with self-blame and her initial rejection surrounding Sasha’s identity at an early age, Karine’s focus on her daughter’s elation upon trying on a dress for the first time or supporting her dream of transitioning allowed her to open up that space for her daughter to begin to assert her individuality.

While Lifshitz isn’t aiming to include the perspective of more than Sasha’s tightly knit family, he still sufficiently accentuates the ways in which society marginalizes transgendered individuals and leaves them in the shadows. Late in the documentary, after countless missed phone calls and attempted meetings with teachers, the staff finally agrees to discuss Sasha’s renewed introduction as a girl to her classmates for the upcoming school year but only after two weeks of classes; they fail to understand the inevitable complications that would arise in such a sensitive period. “I wonder if there’s any point [in] fighting,” says Sasha through exhausted tears, consistently on edge when she thinks of asserting herself in an academic setting.

Despite the daily obstacles the Kovac family endures from the outside, the intimate moments Sasha shares with her family and engagement in newfound aspects of her femininity sheds light on the importance we collectively put on judging people’s sexual expressions and preferences based on whether ‘male’ or ‘female’ is stated on a piece of paper at birth. Little Girl is a necessary reminder on how genuine and resolute acceptance of another can make all the difference by allowing the space for one’s inner and unique identity to come to light and thrive.

Reflecting on the college application process can certainly bring back memories of intense expectations and exaggerated worries amidst all the other social and self-discovery hurdles that are ripe in adolescence. Yet, for the students at Lowell High School, the anxieties surrounding college acceptance letters reach a near insurmountable tier. Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder! (2021) closely follows the experiences of five junior and senior students as they navigate the immense internal and external pressures leading up to graduation with the hope of getting accepted into an Ivy League school. Considered to be the top-ranked public school in San Francisco, Lowell High hyper-focuses on the rigorous process of maintaining the highest GPA, achieving perfect SAT scores, and acing AP courses as a guarantee to a successful future and career; and it all essentially creates a rigid herd mentality in their student body to have their sights set on either attending the most elite colleges or considering their self-worth an outright failure.

The administration’s demands of future students is conflicting in nature. They want to make sure students secure the highest grades in their classes while also being able to demonstrate a well-rounded personality and extracurriculars on paper. Comprised of 70% Asian-American students, the majority are ultimately rejected by the board of admissions under the assumption that most Asian-Americans are seen as “AP machines,” digesting and regurgitating information in a rote manner. Alvan, a first generation immigrant of parents born in Taiwan, resists this stereotype as he shows off his endearing personality and love for theatrical performance, stating that if it wasn’t for his parents’ expectations he would likely be following a different trajectory in life. Rachael, a biracial senior, recalls a discriminatory comment made by one of her peers in that she “didn’t expect for Black people to actually care about their grades.” Considering the demographics that colleges use to determine who is and isn’t accepted, Rachael constantly grapples with the notion of her mixed identity, yet remains steadfast in not wanting to undermine both aspects of her cultural upbringing rather than define herself as strictly Black as a means to gain an educational advantage. 

Through the footage and interviews with the parents of Lum’s five subjects, she illuminates just how much of an effect they have on students’ day-to-day morale. Ian’s mother remains one of the few outliers in that she encourages her son to delve into creative outlets that would result in more than just a test score. However, most parents are all too eager to deeply invest themselves in their kid(s)’ application status, earning the moniker “Tiger Mom” due to their strict and overbearing forms of parenting. As a junior at Lowell High School, Shea has no choice but to remain nearly self-sufficient in every capacity as he structures his days around his absent and alcoholic father while aiming to get into Stanford in an effort to forge a career fighting climate change.

Both a testament to the unrealistic boundaries and demands of our educational system as well as a love letter to our inner nerd, Try Harder! succeeds in its sincerity. It highlights the excruciating pressures these students face as they navigate their distinct, emerging identities amidst the tumultuous hurdles of the late high school experience.

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