There is something transformative about summer vacation. The long, relaxed weeks without the confines and expectations of school allow for the opportunity to reinvent oneself and experience newfound freedoms. The blank canvas of friendships formed during this time, without any past baggage, provides a chance to start anew. It is no coincidence that many coming-of-age stories take place during the carefree days of childhood summers. However, for some children, the freedom of summer can also bring its own stresses and anxieties. 20,000 Species of Bees, the confident debut film from Basque director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren, follows in the footsteps of films like Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy and Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 (both of which share a similar bond with this one) by using summer as a backdrop for a story about a child struggling to find their place in a world that doesn’t quite understand them.
The main character in this heartfelt drama is an eight-year-old child (played remarkably by Sofía Otero, who won the award for best leading performance at the 2023 Berlin film festival). During a summer spent with her mother’s family in the Basque Country, she begins to assert her true identity as a girl, despite being referred to as a boy by family and friends. It is not an easy journey, especially during a summer filled with activities that require revealing clothing and can be uncomfortable for a child struggling with body dysphoria. Living in a close-knit rural community means everyone knows her old name – a constant and painful reminder of her true self. After rejecting her birth name, Aitor, and the gender-neutral nickname Cocó, she ultimately settles on the name Lucía.
Urresola’s directing style is marked by a subtle delicacy and keen emotional awareness. Through handheld cameras, even the smallest details are captured – from the slight smile that brightens Lucía’s face when she is praised as a girl, to the darkening of her expression when her grandmother asserts that she is a grandson rather than a granddaughter. Lucía’s mother, Ane (played by Patricia López Arnaiz), is also struggling with her own sense of self. As an aspiring sculptor, she constantly feels overshadowed by her late father’s dominant presence in the studio where she works to establish herself in the art world. Similar to Emanuele Crialese’s autobiographical film L’immensità, the mother in this story also plays a crucial role in supporting and providing emotional insulation for her child to embrace their true identity, adding even more strain to an already strained marriage.
Deft, understated and with a refreshing lightness of touch, this is the kind of naturalistic, documentary-inspired film-making approach that frequently draws comparisons with the cinema of the Dardennes brothers. But in fact it’s closer in tone to the fresh, vital energy of Simón’s work, with a touch of the earth magic and ritual superstitions that infuse the films of Alice Rohrwacher, in particular The Wonders, a picture that has its own symbolic relationship with bees.
The honeybees and Lucía’s great-aunt Lourdes (played by Ane Gabarain) are both important figures in Lucía’s journey. As a guarded and moody child, Lucía begins to open up when she spends time with an adult who simply listens to her without judgement or correction. However, not everyone is as understanding. Lucía’s grandmother Lita (played by Itziar Lazkano) believes that the child is acting out and has been spoiled, which she brings up during a powerfully intense scene where decades of unresolved family issues are brought to the surface.
Lucía’s grandmother is probably not the only one who will resist the notion of an eight-year-old questioning their gender identity. It’s a highly controversial topic and a bold subject for a first film. However, with this sensitive and understanding portrayal, Urresola contributes to a discourse that is typically characterized by yelling and instead lowers the volume to a whisper. As it turns out, much more can be heard in this way.
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