The Argentinean film "XXY," which opens Friday at Cinema Village after making its New York premiere last month at Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films showcase, centers on an intersexual child who was born with the reproductive anatomy of both genders. The subject matter may be unusual, but it sets in motion a series of all-too-familiar coming-of-age themes such as teenage angst, conflicted parents, and peer pressure.
Hermaphroditic Alex (Inés Efron) was raised as a girl but has now reached puberty and fallen into severe emotional withdrawal. His/her marine biologist father, Kraken (Ricardo Darín), relocates his family to a remote Uruguayan coastal hamlet, hoping to provide Alex with an upbringing that resembles normality, however vaguely. But Alex's mother, Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli), has succumbed to more conventional notions of normalcy and invites Buenos Aires's top plastic surgeon, Ramiro (Germán Palacios), for a visit, with the ulterior motive of persuading Alex to elect surgery.
Just like the chromosomes of a hermaphrodite, "XXY" is itself full of internal contradictions. Kraken seems to be trying to extract a decision from Alex to either reject or embrace the intersex condition. From the outset, Kraken (who is not so subtly named after a mythological sea monster) champions the latter, given that he devotes his life to protecting endangered maritime species. But Alex has apparently already undergone corrective surgeries and hormonal therapy to maintain a feminine appearance. It's as if Kraken and Suli are still waffling after all this time, and only change their minds when the plot deems it convenient.
Worse, first-time writer-director Lucia Puenzo doesn't quite make up her own mind about what to do with Alex. A sullen, antisocial weirdo, Alex is utterly unsympathetic before a pivotal moment in the film, which recalls the harrowing rape scene in "Boys Don't Cry," changes that. But even then, the character doesn't elicit much more than pity.
It's difficult to buy a message of empowerment when it's at the expense of someone else's dignity.