Running Time: 128 mins
UK Distributor: Curzon
UK Release Date: 27 October 2023
WHO’S IN 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES?
Sofía Otero, Patricia López Arnaiz, Ane Gabarain, Itziar Lazkano, Sara Cózar, Martxelo Rubio, Miguel Garcés, Unax Hayden, Andere Garabieta
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren (director, writer), Valérie Delpierre and Lara Izagirre (producers), Gina Ferrer (cinematographer), Raúl Barreras (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A young transgender girl (Otero) struggles with her identity during a family holiday…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES?
With transgender rights become an increasingly hot button topic among conservative figures and certain right-leaning politicians, it’s depressingly clear now more than ever that audiences need to be educated about the simple fact that trans people are, in fact, people. They exist and mean no harm, no matter what the Daily Mail tries telling its gullible readers, and when it comes to trans youth there is a vital need to protect their own interests from public humiliation, so that they can grow up however or whoever they desire to be, without fear of retaliation from society or – even worse – their own family.
It’s the familial angle that Spanish filmmaker Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren chooses to show her vision of trans youth with her debut feature 20,000 Species of Bees, which like Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy and even Emanuele Crialese’s L’immensità before it offers a sensitive and delicately portrayed coming-of-age drama where the central young protagonist’s discovery of their own gender identity is a powerful crux on which it comfortably leans.
Said young lead is played by Sofía Otero, who in the film is known to her family as Aitor, the male name she was assigned at birth. The eight-year-old child, however, tends to favour having long hair and wearing more feminine clothing, which earns her some teasing by her siblings who mockingly call her “Coco”, while other members of her family, including her mother Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz), insist that she is a “he”. Things come to a head when she travels with her family – sans father Gorka (Martxelo Rubio), who is supposedly called to work, though it’s suggested that he and Ane are having marital issues – to her grandmother Lita’s (Itziar Lazkano) home in the Basque Country for the summer, where she becomes more inquisitive about her gender identity, and soon learns to feel more comfortable in her own skin, while her family struggles to comprehend what is happening underneath their noses.
What’s interesting about 20,000 Species of Bees is that the drama does not entirely rest on the journey of self-discovery that the young protagonist finds herself on. A large chunk is dedicated to exploring the tense relations between this family, particularly Ane who finds herself overworked by her three children, undervalued by her own mother, and with only her love for sculpting – a trait shared by her late father – keeping her sane. It has also, however, turned her somewhat neglectful, especially toward her youngest child whose insistence about her gender identity is dismissed by Ane’s empty compromise of allowing both boy and girl mentalities, rather than encourage or even confront the one she truly believes herself to be.
By showing different sides to the situation, which also include beekeeping great-aunt Lourdes (Ane Gabarain) with whom the young girl bonds closest with, Solaguren’s script becomes intriguingly multi-layered as we see the external forces that have led to major uncertainty surrounding what should be a straightforward decision, which is genuinely captivating as well as heart-breaking at certain points.
The filmmaker does, however, make it abundantly clear that there is no film without the young girl that forms its heart and soul. Sofía Otero, who was awarded the Leading Performance prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival (making her, at eight years old, the youngest recipient of the relatively new award), has a striking presence about her that gives off the impression that she’s a seasoned pro, even though this is her debut acting role. Under Solaguren’s direction, Otero conveys so much natural emotion that she often feels too real, with her inquisitive gaze and self-conscious body language saying so much without coming across as contrived or forced.
She commands your attention with a hugely empathetic lead performance that is the very definition of “winning”, and while my cisgender self cannot comment on how it best represents the trans youth experience, I imagine that it must at the very least be close to an accurate portrayal, otherwise neither she nor the film would have been receiving so much critical praise.
It is a handsomely made film, from a script that is absolutely rich with emotion, though its slightly meandering pace does shake away some of the immediate investment, with a few scenes that wobble ever so slightly with their overall focus. A couple of underdeveloped plot points, such as a couple of revelations surrounding Ane’s late father as well as her struggling marriage, occasionally stretch the ambiguity as well. Otherwise, Solaguren shows plenty of promise here as a strong filmmaker with a generous spirit that allows as many factions of her film to shine as possible, whether it’s the fine ensemble or the atmospheric cinematography.
Above everything, though, 20,000 Species of Bees should serve as an important viewing experience for any other young people out there struggling to come to terms with their own gender identity, whom it comfortably reaches out to tell them that all-important message: you are not alone.
SO, TO SUM UP…
20,000 Species of Bees is a sensitively portrayed account of trans youth, which debut filmmaker Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren generously allows a multi-layered perspective of, in addition to the one that is excellently played by young actor Sofía Otero, who alone makes this complex drama worth watching.