Girls Lost opens slowly, taking time first to establish the motifs and vibe that drive the film, before we meet any of the characters or setting. Its dreamy opening sequence emphasizes transformative imagery — water, fire, masks, growing things — on top of the kind of synth track that’s everywhere in indie cinema right now. Her second feature, after 2011’s Kiss Me, Alexandra-Therese Keining hopes the literal and figurative transformations in Girls Lost cause the audience to identify the work with magical realism. She adapted it from the first half of the novel Pojkarna by Jessica Schiefauer, which follows a group of friends from adolescent troubles to an adult reconciliation. Girls Lost covers only the friends’ adolescent years, as misfits Bella, Momo and Kim deal with bullying, patriarchy, identity and magic. When I talked to Keining over the phone, she told me that she might one day — if the financing and timing were right — like to adapt the second half of the novel, in a sequel that would put to rest some but not all of the lingering questions that the film, often at its most comfortable in ambiguity, asks of its audience.
Masks and firelight and an admonishment to look deeply and to question, a warning that this is a film only for those who are willing to transform — that’s what serves here for establishing shots. Certainly Girls Lost is a queer film, with three queer and one trans characters, and a bildungsroman, but it is just as much a film about magic and possibility. While some reviewers have knocked the film for its unhurried pace, its reliance on imagery — just get to the kid drama! — it’s a huge part of what makes Girls Lost work, and how it makes its point. When I asked Keining how she wanted to see the film marketed, she said she’d like to see more emphasis on magical realism. It’s that magical realism that moves the film away from didacticism and strict nostalgia, to something much more open.
From that first sequence — referenced and revisited later in in the film in times of emotional upset, ritual and change — we’re introduced to the friends, Kim, Bella and Momo, who we get to know quickly through their social exclusion and the rituals they develop among themselves to compensate for that. Bella is a nerd, chubby, ginger and weighed down by thick rimmed glasses. Momo is a dreamer, chafing against the kind of femininity her classmates more aptly wear. Kim is, we think at first, a tomboy. Within the first twenty minutes we see them cycling together, touching briefly under a cocoon of water, viciously bullied at school, lacking any support from authority — who either ignore circumstances entirely or tell the girls they must take responsibility for their victimization — and the secret garden they retreat to at the end of each day. It’s typical stuff. The film brings to mind both 2016’s nostalgia darling Stranger Things and a film we are now nostalgic for, The Craft. But rather than the perfunctory treatment that magic gets in both Stranger Things and The Craft — it’s both plot moving and decorative; an excuse for some teenage hijinks and the comfort of a by-the-numbers genre tale — a sense of magic permeates every shot of Girls Lost, all of which are constructed for maximum emotional impact rather that information conveyance.
Here’s an example of how Girls Lost constructs images that deal in nostalgia but problematize it: their secret garden isn’t exactly the walled in emotional, gentry hotbox of so many English novels; rather it’s a greenhouse that Bella has inherited from her dead mother, full of life and beautiful flowers, but also all the tools she needs to study horticulture and plant biology. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that, as Keining puts it, serves to ground Bella far more than her friends. When the magical realism elements of the film go full force, in the form of a strange plant the friends are mailed and which they grow in the greenhouse, Bella is as enchanted as they are, but still analyzing it scientifically. Bella’s garden is as haunted by dead mothers as is Colin and Mary’s and as much a place set apart in which she can find her own strength; but it’s not one that’s truly secret or free from the realities of impending adulthood. Her father comes by. The events of the day are contemplated within it as much as they are also banished. Later, the greenhouse is burned down entirely. What Bella carries from it isn’t some sweet inner strength, but a newly cynical view of her childhood friends. She may not be eager to forgive their trespasses but she does understand them.
What the plant offers is transformation: once it’s grown, the friends are enticed by its scent and decide to drink its sap; Momo paints masks specially for the night, developing a kind of makeshift samhain ritual, complete with dancing and fire. After the night of witchy partying they wake up to find themselves in male bodies. The film is less interested in questioning how the magic of the plant works than in exploring what it offers in terms of character and thematic development. The opportunity to experience life through this new set of eyes is exciting for Bella and Momo but it’s vital for Kim, who realizes that he is trans, that this body is the one he belongs in. But in keeping with samhain rituals, the plant’s magic isn’t permanent. That’s no trouble for Bella or Momo, who are merely exploring gender roles (and in Momo’s case her sexuality) as teens do even without magical plants, but for Kim it’s a crushing blow. The possibility of a perfect transition offered and taken back.
Unlike so many other films that deal with adolescent angst and trauma through magic, Girls Lost grounds keeps its characters grounded and its magic dialed down low. There are none of the witch battles you find in The Craft, where good girl Sarah triumphs over transgressing bad girl Nancy — which serve mainly to reassert “proper” social order. Nor the werewolf battles of Ginger Snaps trilogy, where, for all their power the girls are consumed by their own natures. Nor does Girls Lost even treat in the formulaic domestic-reformation-with-a-twist that Stranger Things serves up. Magic is real in Girls Lost but it’s not satisfying and it’s rules aren’t conclusive. It does not simplify adolescence. It does not serve up a neat parable about the dangers of____. The plant dies and its magic goes with it. Kim must make choices about transition. Bella and Momo must deal with its lessons. They are changed by the experience but not set into a new, comfortably witchy identity; rather, they are still transforming.
Keining says that teen audiences almost uniformly wish they could have a crack at this transformation thing, that they would love to have a day to be someone else, perhaps on the other side of one of the power differentials that they are beginning to understand. Too, teen audiences are far more comfortable with the film’s ending, which has Kim driving alone into a forest and Momo and Bella left behind, none of their futures assured. Where adults often chide her for not closing any of the open circles she sketches, Keining says that teens don’t find this lack of resolution uncomfortable at all. Keining, like Jessica Schiefauer who wrote the novel that the film is based on, understands that adolescence is a state of incomplete equations, unresolved questions, a slow state of constant transformation.
Keining has had the rare opportunity to connect with audiences because the film isn’t just a festival darling, it’s regularly shown in schools in Sweden and elsewhere. Although LGBTQ activism has made advances quicker in Sweden than most anywhere else, cinema and literature are not exactly overflowing with representation of queer and trans people. Between Girls Lost and her first film, Kiss Me, Keining has become one of Sweden’s standard-bearers for LGBTQ arts and culture, giving talks at schools and festivals, in addition to promoting Girls Lost and drumming up funding for her next film (an English language feature, she said, but she was unwilling to give out any more details). Unlike so many artists who find themselves in the position of being a role model, Keining finds it rewarding. A status not sought out (“I’m just making the films I’m interested in,” she told me) but welcome. Certainly Girls Lost is a statement and a message film — that transition is brutally difficult without community support; that masculinity is profoundly damaging; that girlhood isn’t safe under patriarchy — but it isn’t one that neatly lays out the issues and makes an action plan. Girls Lost seems much more interested in encouraging exploration and ambiguity.
If Girls Lost is the kind of film that opens doors for kids and teens, that encourages them to be comfortable with a certain unsettledness in their identity even as they move towards adulthood, it’s also a film that’s opened doors for Keining. That too is part of why she finds the position of role model so comfortable — Girls Lost is a film that she adapted for the screen, directed and now treasures. A film she genuinely enjoys talking about, with audiences young and grown. The film had its North American premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, which gave her a chance to see how it might play to non-Swedish audiences and just as importantly, to do some business. It’s in Toronto that Girls Lost found the distribution deal that has seen it released in 40 countries on the big screen, and now streaming online and on DVD. It’s in Toronto too, that she began to make plans for her next film, that as yet mysterious English-language project. Expect queer themes, of course, and the return of cinematographer Ragna Jorming, who worked with Keining on both Kiss Me and Girls Lost.
Girls Lost is out now on VOD.
Megan Purdy is the Editor-In-Chief of Women Write About Comics. Megan was born in Toronto. She’s still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.