Documentarian Sébastien Lifshitz’s “Petite Fille (Little Girl)” invites us to understand one girl’s story of personal acceptance.

When it comes to parenting, there is no rule book, no grade scale, no metric which immediately determines if a child will grow up happy and healthy or feeling less-than. Despite all the books that have been written by countless experts, what we know vs. what we know *now* vs. what we *think* we know are often in opposition. Discounting all the parents who never wanted to be parents and continue to resent it happening, there are many who want nothing more than to help their children grow up to become the best versions of themselves that they can be. But what that means, what “the best version of themselves” is, is often up for debate. Documentarian Sébastien Lifshitz presents one type of parenting which suggests that the “best thing” a parent can do is listen to their child, to hear them, and to support them in his film Petite Fille (Little Girl). If there is any defining conclusion that Lifshitz definitively offers, it’s that parenting is not for the weak.


A scene from LITTLE GIRL. © AGAT FILMS & CIE – ARTE France. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Seven-year-old Sasha loves dance (specifically ballet), spending time with her siblings, and going to school. She loves pink and abhors wearing blue, enjoying frills on herself or her dolls. She, however, was assigned a male sex at birth and, because of this, struggles to find the acceptance she wants. Lifshitz follows Sasha, her parents, and siblings, as they each fight little battles in order to achieve some sense of a normal life.

Before I get into the review proper, I think it’s important to set the stage for the perspective from which this review comes. I have two children, both assigned male sex at birth, and I don’t give a damn what they do as long as what they do doesn’t hurt themselves or others. This is easy when talking to the eldest about drawing on his skin or the length of his hair (two ways in which Sensory Processing Disorder presents for him). This is easy when talking to him about how he loves rainbows (clothes, towels, toys) and other things that are less stereotypically “male.” These preferences don’t hurt anyone or himself (especially with the proper markers). The thing is that it’s easy, no matter how badly a parent wants to raise their children in a positive manner, to feel hopeless, to feel uncertain, to question everything about your choices and how they impact your child. My children, thus far, don’t present any signs of gender dysmorphia and, if they did, their parents would rally behind them. Not all children are so lucky because the identity of gender is so tied to how society at large functions, seeing things in binary terms, that unnecessary strife often arises, almost always entirely to the detriment of the child.


A scene from LITTLE GIRL. © AGAT FILMS & CIE – ARTE France. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

For those sensitive to stories of the transcommunity, it’s important to note that there’s not a single melodramatic, hyper-sensualized moment in the entirety of Little Girl. Sasha is not a prop to be explored, but a person whose story is presented with delicacy and reverence. Not reverence in an idolized way, but in the way one presents a wholesome story, fearing to taint the subject in any measure. While this may seem like Lifshitz protects Sasha or her family, it’s quite the opposite. With each scene, the audience is offered a raw look at their life, with all the public joys and secret pains that come with them. Before Lifshitz presents the premise of the film, he shows us Sasha getting ready one morning on her own before going out to play in the snow with her family: snowballs tossed, the sound of laughter filling the screen, and general joy amid the family. It’s not until after this that Sasha’s mother, Karine, is shown speaking to someone (never identified, but presumed to be a medical specialist of some kind) about Sasha and the question comes up as to whether Karine had hoped for a girl before and during pregnancy. This question opens up an entire can of worms, a parent’s nightmare, that perhaps Karine had willed this for her daughter, that despite being born assigned male, had taken on the belief of being a girl just to appease a mother’s yearning. From this interview forward, Lifshitz tends to hold the camera in one place, maintaining a close focus on the speaker, cutting only to show a different angle in similarly tight focus, so that the audience misses not a single microexpression. More than any, Karine is the most raw, clearly consumed with fear over any action she has done that might have unintentionally caused her child pain. Because of Lifshitz’s direction, we’re also invited to see Karine’s relief when a child specialist in the field of gender dysmorphia assuages this guilt with the information that parents don’t cause this in their children, it’s just who they are. Due to the intimacy of the filmmaking, we actually feel like we’re in the office with Karine as she speaks with these two very different experts, the personal biases of the audience are confronted and challenged as well with how we respond to the questions being asked and to Karine’s reaction. Do you agree more with the initial medical professional that used a line of questioning regarding Karine’s culpability or the second whose questions (and answers) spoke to both Karine and Sasha with empathy?

The entirety of Little Girl is like this, merely presenting situations as they happen in a cinéma vérité-like style. The camera merely tags along, the family chatting as if the operator is merely another member, though any questions asked of the participants that don’t come from one of the on-camera participants is entirely unseen and unheard. To this end, while Lifshitz appears hands-off, there is a guiding hand behind the camera to ask questions of Sasha’s siblings regarding how they each feel about their sister or of Sasha herself and her feelings. Strangely, though Little Girl is absent world-quaking challenges, what Lifshitz uncovers is the conscious and subconscious bias of a binary world and the harms it does to everyone. What does it matter if Sasha believes to her bones that she’s a girl? Who does it hurt? Why do people in their lives react as if Sasha publically presenting herself as she believes herself to be will somehow disrupt the lives of everyone else? According to Karine early in the documentary, people who don’t know Sasha, who see her on the street, will compliment her outfits and use the proper pronouns, but people who do know her often refuse. Why the emotional violence? What good does it do in the long run?


Sasha in LITTLE GIRL, © AGAT FILMS & CIE – ARTE France. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

If you’re coming to this having seen it or are fresh for the home release, you should be aware that Music Box Films has included approximately 104-minutes worth of bonus materials. The bulk of them make up three different interviews with Lifshitz, all appearing to have been recorded around the U.S. release in September 2021. This includes a Q&A at the New York premiere, an interview a representative of Rendez-Vous (from which it won the Audience Award), and a general interview in support of the film. You’ll notice some crossover material between the three lengthy interviews, especially while laying the groundwork for folks who are less aware with the background on the documentary. So if you’ve been to the Little Girl website or done any research on the film, you’ll have to sit through some familiar information before getting to new information. What remains is a theatrical trailer and over 10 minutes of deleted scenes. These scenes aren’t cut into individual pieces or given titles, so the best way to describe them are as nine additional scenes that offer more time with the supportive child specialist, offering additional information on the process of addressing the gender dysphoria in a positive manner, as well as more scenes with Sasha’s family. There’s nothing particularly significant and one can see why they were removed, but do allow for more time with Sasha, Karine, and her family.

Without hesitation, Karine and her husband love and defend their daughter with everything they have, so much so that the husband must be cautioned not to be aggressive in a meeting with school officials. This, I think, is why a film like Little Girl matters. This helps maintain a record in which people are allowed to be who they feel they are without the stigma of moral outrage. As explained in the documentary, hormone treatments, sterilization, and other aspects which transphobes often trot out, all the approaches for someone of Sasha’s age, are reversible and steps can be taken to help allow for her to conceive a blood-related child in her future should she want to. There is no permanence, no disfigurement, and it’s not confined to one time or one place. People like Sasha exist beyond our television sets, well out into the world. They have, for generations in many cultures, been driven into shame by a false righteousness. Little Girl not only invites us in to meet a child struggling to be her best self, but shows us what happens when we, as a society, deny that to her. In this regard, Lifshitz puts together a lovely picture with a simple narrative: can one find acceptance outside after one’s found acceptance inside?

Little Girl Special Features:

  • A Conversation from the New York premiere (27:22)
  • Filmmaker Q&A from Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (30:26)
  • Interview with director Sébastien Lifshitz (34:44)
  • Deleted Scenes (10:44)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:16)

In theaters September 17th, 2021.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD February 1st, 2022.

For more information, head to the official Music Box Films Little Girl website.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.


Categories: Home Video, Reviews, streaming

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