Ever since American pioneers hitched horses to wagons and headed for new possibilities in 1930’s westerns, perhaps most notably in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the road movie has become one of cinema’s most enduring genres. With an honourable mention to Australia (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), they tend to work best in American settings, where vast, open spaces and hundreds of miles of bugger all to see or do allow the sort of character self-discovery which is the whole point of such films. Let’s face it, America’s Route 66 – Chicago to Los Angeles – probably has more going for it from a cinematic point of view than England’s A66, which follows the old Roman road from Middlesbrough to Workington.
The past few decades have seen the road movie fall chiefly into two distinct camps: those with lead characters who have chosen to hit the road together (Thelma and Louise, The Blues Brothers) and those where they’re thrown together by happenstance (Trains, Planes and Automobiles; Rain Man). Lola and the Sea most definitely falls into the latter category.
Belgium, at around one-eighth of the size of the UK, may not seem the obvious location for a road movie – but, in Laurent Micheli’s trans-themed Lola And The Sea – this is exactly what we have…and it works.
Watch the trailer.
Lola (Mya Bollaers) lives in a homeless shelter in the city with her best friend Samir (Sami Outalbali, Sex Education) studying for her diploma as a veterinary assistant. Emboldened by her life-changing transition and the support of her mother, she has the world at her feet and looking forward to completing her transition and living her life in her true gender.
When Lola receives the news that her mother has suddenly passed away, she returns home for the funeral and to face her estranged father, Phillipe (Benoît Magimel, The Piano Teacher). Driven together by the common goal to fulfil her mother’s last wishes, Lola and Phillipe reluctantly embark on a journey to the North Sea. Forced to spend time alone together, Phillipe begins to accept his daughter for the first time.
Philippe doesn’t get the whole trans thing, reflecting much of society as a whole. As well as mourning the loss of his wife, he is also mourning the loss of his son. He’s not a narrow-minded bigot, as many of the more vociferous trans-activists might have it; rather, he is genuinely baffled asking the same questions that many parents of trans kids must ask themselves: was it something that I did? Why would you want to choose to have your genitals cut off? Is it just a phase? Philippe’s struggle to understand is mirrored as the trip passes from French- to Flemish-speaking Belgium; think driving from England to a Welsh-speaking area of Wales, where most people probably speak English but speak Welsh among themselves. Philippe, a French speaker, doesn’t understand the Flemish being spoken and yet Lola is bilingual. For sure, this is not the most subtle of metaphors, but it does the trick.
Lola And The Sea asks serious questions of a parent of a trans child, and in that respect reminded me of the 1968 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Katherine Houghton’s Joanna introduces her fiancé, a doctor, to her liberal parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Tracy and Hepburn’s characters are modern and forward thinking but, when they meet Dr Prentice (Sidney Poitier), who is black, their liberal attitudes start to wobble as they contemplate the implications of an interracial marriage. I know for a fact from trans people I have spoken to that they have been shocked at how their own progressive parents have become somewhat less progressive when trans theory becomes trans reality.
Mya Bollaers as Lola is outstanding – hard to believe that this is her debut feature – and was quite rightly honoured as “Most Promising Actress” in the Magritte Awards, the Belgian equivalent to the BAFTAS. In fact, her performance was so moving that I, a cynical middle-aged bloke who watches films for a living, found myself welling up on more than one occasion, something that hasn’t happened to me since Toy Story 4.
Lola and the Sea is available from Peccadillo on Demand from 17th December.