Source: Film Movement

A Trans Girl's Journey in Beautifully Poignant Film '20,000 Species of Bees'

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Some stellar trans films have already been released this year, including Jane Schoenbrun's masterful "I Saw the TV Glow" and Vera Drake's creative "The People's Joker." A beautifully poignant and empathetic coming-of-age trans film, "20,000 Species of Bees" follows a young trans girl's journey to discovery and self-acceptance amidst her family on a summer vacation.

Written and directed by Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren, her directorial debut is a Spanish film that premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival, a.k.a. Berlinale.

The film follows 8-year-old Lucia (Sofía Otero), who goes by her chosen name of Coco for much of the film. Her family lives in the Northern Basque Country in France. Lucia's mom, Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz), is an artist who works with beeswax sculptures, as did Lucia's deceased grandfather; her great-aunt, Lourdes (Ane Gabarain), is a beekeeper. Lucia's dad, Gorka (Martxelo Rubio), drives them to the train station for their vacation, but doesn't join them, as the parents' relationship is strained. Lucia's older brother, Eneko (Unax Hayden), and her older sister, Nerea (Andere Garabieta Oribe), are there, too, as they visit Lucia's aunts and grandmother, all in preparation for Lucia's cousin's baptism.

Lucia has painted fingernails. She doesn't want to be hugged or kissed. To other children, Lucia says her name is Coco, rather than her masculine given name. Both her aunt, Leire (Sera Cozar), and her grandmother (Itziar Lazkano) comment on how long Lucia's hair has grown, eventually becoming fixated on Lucia cutting her hair in a "boy haircut."

Swimming causes a lot of consternation and worry for Lucia throughout the film, most likely because of her gender dysphoria. She often refuses to swim and wear swimsuits. Lucia perpetually worries about what's wrong with her. She questions why she was born this way.

Lucia's mom rejects the gender binary, teaching Lucia that clothes and toys shouldn't be delineated by gender. She reassures Lucia that she "can be whoever you want to be." Ane and Lucia's grandmother argue, as grandma criticizes Ane's parenting, calling Lucia "a confused boy" that Ane needs "to straighten out." Thankfully, Ane defends Lucia saying she's sensitive and discovering herself. But she doesn't realize Lucia is a trans girl.

Pivotally, Lucia becomes extremely upset when her mother unknowingly deadnames her to another girl. Over the course of the film, Lucia comes to choose her name after her grandmother tells her the story of Saint Lucia, "punished for standing up for what she believed in." It's sad that the grandmother lets her transphobia stand in the way of accepting Lucia, especially as she often hypocritically talks about faith and how god created everyone perfectly.

This is a leisurely film that unfolds slowly amidst beautifully lush, sun-kissed cinematography. With verdant greens of outdoor foliage, sunlight glittering off of lakes, and sunsets awash in pink hues, the movie captures the magical aura of summer for children, unbound by the constraints of time and society to pursue joy.

The cinematography by Gina Ferrer deftly and empathetically captures Lucia's emotions and state of mind. The camera often remains on Lucia while family members' reactions occur off screen: Lucia walks with her grandmother while women use she/her pronouns to refer to Lucia, which makes her smile; Lucia's mother protectively carries her out of a clothing store, where her aunt and a salesclerk are upset Lucia touched dresses; Lucia is seen with her siblings while an off-screen fight between family members occurs, arguing about Lucia's gender. While Lucia wears a dress in the backseat of a car, her father angrily enters the front seat, looking into the rearview mirror and directly at the camera, so we feel that anger and shame the way Lucia feels them.

But "20,000 Species of Bees" doesn't just wallow in misery. We also feel the beauty and joy Lucia feels when she chooses her name, plays with an accepting friend, wears a dress, and spends time with her great-aunt caretaking the bees. When we finally see Lucia swimming in a lake with her unconditionally supportive great-aunt, we glimpse an exhalation and a feeling of ease and freedom.

In one wrenching scene, Lucia asks her great-aunt, "Can I die and be reborn as a girl?" But her great-aunt consoles and reassures her that she is "already a girl." Thank god for her wonderful great-aunt! Her brother Eneko and friend Niko support her, too.

Sofía Otero, the actress who portrays Lucia, is incredibly naturalistic. She has an ease about her that doesn't feel performative – zero pretense. It feels, as we watch her on screen, like she's genuinely observing everything around her. Often pensive, her perceptions and curiosities feel palpable. It's an incredible performance for which she won the 2023 Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance at Berlinale, making her the youngest person ever to do so.

While I wish a young trans actress had been cast, Otero is astounding in the role. Director Urresola Solaguren worked with the organization Naizen, which supports trans children and their families, in order to sensitively depict a trans child.

Other films focusing on trans children characters include Celine Sciamma's "Tomboy," French-Belgian film "Ma Vie en Rose" ("My Life in Pink"), "Cowboys" (staring trans actor Sasha Knight), Brazilian comedy "Alice Júnior," queer rom-com "Anything's Possible," and Brazilian film "Valentina." Similar to "Tomboy," Lucia in "20,000 Species of Bees" explores her gender identity and expression.

We need more films by trans people and about trans people. Considering the abominable amount of despicably cruel legislation targeting trans children – when what they need is gender-affirming care, understanding, and support – trans art is a necessary and revolutionary act. Beautifully acted, filmed, and directed with great attention to detail, "20,000 Species of Bees" is a poignant, empathetic, and vital film.

"20,000 Species of Bees" opens in theaters on June 14.

by Megan Kearns

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