ABOVE: A STILL FROM GIRLS LOST
New York’s LGBT film festival, NewFest, kicked off last week and wraps today, October 27, with a special screening of Alexandra-Therese Keining’s Girls Lost. Fresh off its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, this closing night event marks the acclaimed Swedish film’s anticipated U.S. debut.
Based on Jessica Schiefauer’s award-winning 2011 novel Pojkarna (The Boys), the film follows Kim, Momo, and Bella, a trio of teenage friends who fall victim to the incessant bullying and abuse of their male peers. Through some unforeseen magic, the girls give life to a magical plant whose nectar temporarily turns them into one of the boys. While it’s cause for a night of adventure for Momo and Bella, the transformation enables Kim to realize her true gender identity, and she becomes addicted to the magical plant.
Rife with tender meditations on trans identity, sexuality, and gender performativity, Girls Lost is a teenage coming-of-age unlike any before it. We spoke with writer-director Keining on a call from her native Sweden to chat about the upcoming NewFest premiere, playing with magical realism, and being a female filmmaker in what’s widely considered a man’s game.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: How did the making of Girls Lost come about? What was the inspiration behind it?
ALEXANDRA-THERESE KEINING: After my last film, Kiss Me, I was offered various romantic dramas, and I just didn’t want to repeat myself. The producer read the novel Girls Lost is based on and called me and said, “Well, I think this is something you would make into a terrific film.” I hadn’t read it at the time, so when I read it, I became really fascinated with the whole magical realism of it. I never read a story like that before. I think it’s truly unique. I also wanted the screenplay and ultimately the film to be really original.
LINDSAY: Was the magical realism at all daunting? It’s new territory for you.
KEINING: It was, but that’s the part I like. I really like feeling a bit unsafe and going into territories that I’ve never wandered before. I’d never done any special effects or green screen or anything like that, but I was truly taken by the challenge of it all. We had kind of a low budget, so we really had to work hard to get a high production value and really make the story believable. I think this kind of film lives or dies by being believable at some points.
LINDSAY: One of the things that makes it the most believable is your cast of actors. How did you go about casting?
KEINING: The producers originally discussed that they wanted the same person to play both the female and the male character of Kim as well as the other girls, and I was opposed to that right from the beginning. I really wanted the whole transition to be fulfilled and to be as realistic as possible—to actually change from one gender to another. After that, I just went with the casting director and we visited so many schools. All of the actors in the film are non-actors. They had no previous acting experience, so it was kind of a hassle but it was also interesting and fascinating at the same time—auditioning the kids and getting that energy from them. I really felt a significant difference on set. I’d never worked with kids or young teenagers before, so it was a really different experience for me, which I really liked. I would love to do that again.
LINDSAY: I thought they were all excellent, particularly the actors behind Kim.
KEINING: I actually found the female Kim first. I wasn’t looking for identical twins. I was just looking for some small body mannerism or anything like that—an expression in their eyes and facial expressions that would actually make you think that this could be that person in a different gender. It was a very interesting journey.
LINDSAY: For Kim to identify as a trans male, you’re tackling some pretty explicitly queer themes. What was that like for you?
KEINING: At the time, I was reading Judith Butler and I was very intrigued by the idea of gender performativity. I thought that would be something that really applied to this film and to the whole theme of it. I think that’s definitely one of the things that made me want to make the film because it’s such an important issue. I don’t feel that we’ve made enough stories or enough films about that issue.
LINDSAY: Then we look to the other girls, Bella and Momo. They don’t feel like they were born in the wrong body, but they still find joy in switching genders. What was that about?
KEINING: I think their transformation could’ve been equal to being transformed into superheroes or something like that. They don’t feel the same freedom that Kim is experiencing.
LINDSAY: What did the film’s motif of the butterfly come to signify for you?
KEINING: The butterflies were part of the book as well. The novel has very poetic language and the butterflies were there, but I wanted to enhance them in the film version. To me, just like the flower, they symbolize that whole metaphor of femininity and masculinity, and how it kind of withers away and slowly dies as much as innocence and childhood versus growing up and beginning your new circle of life.
LINDSAY: As a woman working in the film industry, did you find yourself at all relating to the film’s themes of misogyny and gender privilege?
KEINING: Sweden is a really interesting country from that perspective, and I’m really proud that we have the Swedish Film Institute, which constantly challenges gender equality issues and fights constantly to maintain a balance between male and female directors—I would expect more so than other countries. This year, half of all the directors making films in Sweden are women. I feel that there’s a progress in that battle. I don’t really feel treated differently because I’m a female director. We have a different system financing films—we don’t have the studio system. We have the government that sort of gives out grants to different directors, so it’s really the government’s responsibility to maintain balance between male and female directors.
LINDSAY: That’s certainly unheard of in the Hollywood studio system. There’s been a ton of talk lately about inequality to that end, whether in front of the camera or people behind the scenes.
KEINING: Well, there was difficultly financing this film, but I think that would be either if I was a male or a female director. Swedish investors really look for happy endings and they don’t like taking risks. All I really want, as a director, is to ask questions and explore them. All the negative apprehensions and people being scared just boosted the notion of how important this film was.
GIRLS LOST MAKES ITS U.S. DEBUT TONIGHT, OCTOBER 27, AT NEWFEST’S OFFICAL CLOSING NIGHT GALA.