|Ricardo Darín and Inés Efron star in Lucia Puenzo's directorial debut, "XXY." (Film Movement)|
The grown-ups in Lucia Puenzo's "XXY" are a glum lot. In their defense, two of them have to make the unenviable choice about whether to let Alex (Inés Efron), their 15-year-old, become, via surgery, a full-fledged boy or full-fledged girl. The misery in their faces makes circumstantial sense, but depression is the only state of mind Puenzo, in her directorial debut, comes up with for the adult actors, including Valeria Bertuccelli and the ordinarily vital Ricardo Darín as Alex's parents.
We're dropped into the coastal Uruguayan town where they've resettled from Argentina. The father is a marine veterinarian specializing in turtles, and once we know what "XXY" is about (the title, which refers to an anomalous genetic defect, really says it all), his specialty turns aggravatingly symbolic. When we learn that the family whom Alex's mother has invited to stay with them includes a plastic surgeon (Germán Palacios), it seems possible we're headed toward some kind of medical tragedy.
But Puenzo goes out of her way not to sensationalize anything. Too much of the movie, which opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts, is tentative. Maybe a freaky approach, or at least a melodramatic one, would have given the film a sense of life that it rarely has. Alex is a hermaphrodite, not a corpse, but the movie's clinical approach sometimes makes you feel as if you're at a premature funeral. It's almost as if Puenzo were uncomfortable that she's so at ease with Alex's alarmingly feral sexual aggression, which is at the root of the best scenes in this movie.
Alex goes after the plastic surgeon's shy teenage son, Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky), who doesn't know what's hitting him. He thinks he's met this cute, if androgynous girl, only to discover in one traffic-stopping scene that there's more to Alex than meets the eye. What ensues between them, both psychologically and sexually, is one of the strangest, most fascinating dysfunctional relationships I've seen in a movie. The acting is outstanding.
Initially, Alvaro is terrified of Alex, though emotionally more intrigued than traumatized - the suggestion being that kids can handle the shock of abnormality better than adults. Better than some filmmakers, too.