This unusual and thought-provoking gender-themed story from acclaimed writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining (Kiss Me) is now available on VOD and DVD through Wolfe Video. Girls Lost is the story of three best friends — bullied, outcast 14-year-old girls — who explore issues of gender identity, love, and courage as they navigate the transitional age between childhood and adulthood. The girls find a magic flower that temporarily turns them into boys, and during nocturnal odysseys they enjoy their new identities. One of the girls is lured further and further into the boys’ world and begins to question her identity in important ways as well as her friends’ struggles to decipher their new magical reality. Based on the controversial and award-winning Swedish novel Pojkarna by Jessica Schiefuerm, Girls Lost features fluid, passionate performances from the young leads (for almost all, this is their acting debut) to tell an original story that looks at gender and teenage sexuality in surprising ways. I spoke to Alexandra-Therese Keining about her provocative film.
Danny Miller: I know the film was based on a very popular novel in Sweden. Did you feel an obligation to stay faithful to the book as you wrote the screenplay?
Alexandra-Therese Keining: Not really. The book is divided into two layers — one when the characters are young and the other when they’re adults. The time shifts back and forth throughout the novel. I loved both of those layers but I decided to just focus on the young women for the purposes of the movie. It’s such a poetic novel — very dreamlike and suggestive — and that’s the kind of feeling I wanted to convey.
I read that the novel was considered very controversial in Sweden?
Oh yeah, it was actually banned from some schools in our country which I thought was pretty crazy. Some parents thought that the whole interplay between being a boy and a girl was too provocative and there were worries that the characters were too young to be playing around with drugs and alcohol and exploring their sexuality the way so many kids do!
My fantasy of Sweden, especially with what we’re dealing with here after our recent election, is that it’s very progressive. I know that’s a naïve generalization but I was surprised to see the level of bullying going on with those young girls in the film just because they were a little different from the norm of how girls are expected to act.
Yeah, unfortunately, I think that kind of thing is quite universal! We’ve been showing this film all over the world and in every country I’ve visited there are always people who says they’ve had experiences like that or had a teacher just like the gym teacher in the film. It’s sad to hear but it’s certainly true everywhere that many kids feel very alone and isolated because of who they are.
Those feelings are presented so beautifully in the film. I was very impressed by your young cast — and quite surprised to read that none of them were professional actors.
I decided I didn’t want trained actors and I wanted to find kids who were really the ages of the characters which, as you know, is often not the case in movies about young people. We visited many schools all over Sweden and did auditions. It was very interesting to cast the boys who play the counterpart of the girls in the film. They don’t really look like them very much — we did some tricks with makeup and hair — but I wanted to find people with the same kind of expressive eyes, that’s what was most important to me. I think that’s what communicates to audiences that there’s someone underneath this skin that has less to do with what you see physically. It was a very different casting process for me, I’ve never done anything like it before. But these kids had such a fantastic energy that they brought to the set every day. I really enjoyed working with them.
I was especially impressed with the girl and the boy playing Kim (Tuva Jagell and Emrik Ohlander). They blended so perfectly there were times I wasn’t even sure which one I was seeing on the screen. Did you have lots of discussions on the set with them about the underlying themes of the film?
Yes, it was very important for me that they really understood the psychological transformation they were going through. But I remember the day that one of them had the best possible comment: “Well, Kim is Kim. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Kim as a girl or Kim as a boy, it’s really the same Kim.” For them there was no separation.
Interesting. I think that kind of fluidity is so much easier for young people to grasp than for those of us who grew up in such a binary system.
You know what? You’re absolutely right. I have to tell you that screening the movie for kids versus adults is totally different. Kids who see the film accept the fluidity and the transformation of the characters — they don’t turn it into this big political thing. But grown-ups watching the film always have a lot of questions and discomfort.
It’s also interesting how Kim’s initial forays into masculinity are focused on the “negative” parts and she engages in some really risky behaviors.
Yes. Part of that is because of her meeting Tony. She could have met another boy who was more “safe.” But for me Tony was such an interesting character because he has a lot of conflict in himself as well, he’s not just a “bad boy.” Especially when he realizes he has these feelings for Kim that he doesn’t understand and that he’s ashamed of. For Kim, her newfound masculinity becomes like a drug she’s addicted to. Just like in the novel, she starts to get used to it over time and things become more balanced, but at the beginning, yes, those feelings kind of explode inside of her and are a bit over-exaggerated.
I did find myself wondering what would happen to Kim in the coming years. Do you find yourself thinking about your characters beyond the scope of the film?
Yes! I have a hard time letting go of my characters. When you write a screenplay, it becomes very persona. With Girls Lost, I also had this magical universe with its own rules and that kind of sticks with you, too. Even though it’s been a year since this movie first opened at home, it’s still something that I think about a lot. I would love to do a movie about the grown-up characters.
Oh, I would so love to see that! Have you had any difficulties with the film in certain countries because of the content?
Well, in Russia, we had a bomb threat at our screening. It was very dramatic and scary, we had to interrupt the screening and have a bomb squad search the premises.
Whoa, that’s too bad. I’m sure audiences there would so benefit from the film considering the attitudes there.
Yes, and it was such an enthusiastic group, I felt really bad. But apparently the film is too provocative for Russia. It was in all the papers, I don’t think I’m welcome in that country after that.
And now we need voices like yours more than ever in this country as well. Have you had a lot of reactions to the film from the trans community and people in the LGBTQ community in general?
Yes it’s been very, very positive. I’ve had so many people come up to me after screenings just to thank me for making the film. Many transgender people have said, “You’ve nailed exactly how it feels to have this notion of being trapped in a body that’s not yours.” The main reason why I wanted to make the film was because I wanted to explore the remarkable journey of finding your own identity and sexuality — that’s something I think everyone can relate to. To me, this is a film about identity and giving people the right and the time to discover it.