20,000 Species of Bees: Basque in the sunshine of this intelligent queer drama

Though the central apian metaphor might be a little overdone, this study of an eight-year-old Basque child who begins to question their gender identity is distinguished by its warm naturalism and excellent performances.

24 October 2023

By Sophia Satchell Baeza

Sofía Otero as Lucía in 20,000 Species of Bees (2023)
Sight and Sound

The image of the beehive must be one of the hardest-working metaphors in Spanish culture. In Camilo José Cela’s modernist novel The Hive (1950), it stands for the teeming, wounded city of Madrid in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In Víctor Eríce’s cinematic masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), with which this Basque fiction-feature debut has been unfairly compared, the beehive represents order, obedience and middle-class insularity under Franco. But here, bees buzz around to a wildly different meaning, representing the sheer diversity – and via their wax, the malleability – of identity. Bees stand for freedom. They are a medicine.

It’s among the family beehives on a summer vacation in the Basque countryside that an eight-year-old child begins to question their gender identity, just as her mother (a sculptor who works with beeswax) struggles with her creative one. Born biologically male as Aitor (Sofía Otero) but called the more gender-neutral Cocó, she wants to be called Lucía. Lucía flees to the hive to escape the misunderstanding that surrounds her, finding solace in the company of her open-minded beekeeper great aunt. In a stellar choice of gender-blind casting, the film conspicuously places a young cisgender girl in the role of trans girl Lucía, helping keep the central character’s gender identity at first ambiguous, and certainly fluid. Otero rightly won the Silver Bear at Berlinale for her performance in what is not an easy role; Lucía struggles to put words to what she’s going through and communicates much of the time through her eyes. The Spanish language being grammatically gendered, genders switch subtly and lightning-fast, much as the film flits across linguistic and geographic borders. The naming of people, of things, becomes an important thread in the film, which never actually attaches a label to Lucía’s struggles. “I don’t want to be called anything,” she pleads.

Given the character’s dislike of labelling, it seems fitting that Basque director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren has not created a hot-button social-issues drama, choosing instead to widen her lens on a large family, not unlike her Berlinale Golden Bear-winning predecessor Carla Simón’s rural drama Alcarrás (2022). Solaguren’s film can also be compared to a recent slate of European trans coming-of-agers like Emanuele Crialese’s L’immensità (2022), Lukas Dhont’s Girl (2018) and Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (2020). 20,000 Species of Bees is marked by two strong, lived-in performances and an effortlessly naturalistic feel. It’s just a shame that overladen beeswax metaphors have to come in and spoil the pudding. Give the bees a break: they’ve been through enough.

► 20,000 Species of Bees is in UK cinemas from 27 October.

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