Though it's as sullen and damp-grey as its morose 15-year-old protagonist, Argentinean filmmaker Lucia Puenzo's directorial debut XXY doesn't really get inside the mind of young Alex as much as watch her with an awkward combination of fascination and empathy. It's both a success and a failing on the new filmmaker's part; her intention in making XXY, to humanely depict a character who might in other films or literature be relegated to oddball supporting status, is undoubtedly noble. Yet by focusing almost exclusively on Alex's differences (she was born with both female and male genitalia), rather than offering other facets of her life for consideration, the film slightly shortchanges what could have been a beautifully full portrait of a teenager going through radical inner and outer turmoil.
Too often Alex feels more like a literary conceit than a person, a succinct embodiment of the confusion of adolescence, the terror of burgeoning sexuality adroitly made external. Puenzo doesn't do Alex (played by Ines Efron) any favors by pointedly placing her family and friends in heavily symbolic roles, all of which underscore rather than dilute her abnormality: her father, Kraken (Ricardo Darin), is a marine biologist given to puzzling over the sex of washed-up turtles; her mother's friend (German Palacios), whom she invites for a weekend at their home at the Uruguayan sea shore, is a plastic surgeon; the surgeon's son, Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), is also going through frightening stages of sexual maturation and bafflement. Rather than tread lightly around all of this delicate material, Puenzo directs with a frank humorlessness that borders on ponderous.