Berlinale 2023 Review: 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES, Coming of Identity, Told With Deep Empathy

Sofía Otero, Patricia López Arnaiz, Ane Gabarain, Itziar Lazkano, Martxelo Rubio and Miguel Garcés star in Spanish director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren's feature debut.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Berlinale 2023 Review: 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES, Coming of Identity, Told With Deep Empathy

The 2023 Berlinale hosted many breakthroughs. The Spanish feature-length debut 20,000 Species of Bees by Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren, which screened in the main competition, was among them. Solaguren shot a complex family drama veiled in the simplicity of civil realism and driven by a coming-of-identity story.

Artist Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz) takes her three kids on a summer vacation in her Spanish hometown, leaving France behind. Her husband Gorka (Martxelo Rubio) stays in France, which hints at marital discord that the kids may be unaware of. Nevertheless, the friction quickly shows in the behavior of the youngest child, who prefers to go by the familiar name Coco (Sofía Otero).

Solaguren's debut focuses almost exclusively on Coco, tracking her movements and tantrums. The director observes the small child making initial connections and assimilating into a new environment in Ane's hometown. Soon enough, stereotypes start to be imposed on the child and Ane's conservative mother starts suggesting more loudly the kid should conform to gender norms.

The director cunningly keeps the audience believing Coco is just a little girl hitting yet another phase of resistance and opposition. However, her given name is male, Aitor, and she does not identify with the gender assigned at birth. At the tender age of 8 years, Coco faces an identity crisis whose deep roots do not become obvious until the child utters the heartbreaking words "How come you know who you are and I don’t?"


The pastoral idyll in sun-kissed Basque Country forests turns into a coming-of-identity pursuit, as family traumas start to roll out of the closet. Solaguren introduces more motifs and hints regarding the life decisions of other family members. The fleeting remarks and implications paint a complex picture of how individuals fail and attempt not to fail in personal relations within the single-family unit.

Solaguren, who wrote the script, took almost entirely the masculine agents out of the story's equation. This makes 20,000 Species of Bees a fascinating study of womanhood that extends beyond motherhood, though motherhood is still significant.

Different types of women from different generations interact with Coco, or Lucia, as the child came to identify herself later as. She finds the most understanding in her mother's aunt Lourdes (Ane Gabarain), who leads a solitary life tending to bees. And Lucia finds the least amount of understanding in her grandmother, who thinks that growing up in a strong circle of women made her grandson so effeminate.

20,000 Species of Bees is a sensitive story yet not sentimental, and the film has just the right amount of melodrama. Solaguren raises awareness about hot-button, socially thorny issues, including parental dilemmas and doubts. And she achieves it through an utterly human and immersive story that avoids the pitfalls of lecturing and didacticism.

The 125-minute-long running time does not feel outstretched, as the narrative snowballs more layers with Ane's personal crisis, marital crisis, and her child's gender dysmorphia with the social pressure and the pressure of Ane's late father, an artist who created a scandal in the sleepy hamlet, making the ordeal all the more difficult to handle the right way.

Despite a long running time, a host of supporting characters and extras, and a handful of accompanying subjects and matters, Solaguren and the editor Raúl Barreras keep the story structure clean and comprehensive, consuming audience attention more with each passing minute.

Gina Ferrer's (Biutiful, Savage Grace) cinematography of civil realism accentuates the countryside's environment. Natural surroundings provide the backdrop to turmoil for self-identification and, in a broader sense, the pursuit to live the life one desires. And the local lore of bees serves as a poignant metaphor. 


Ferrer does not keep a distance from the characters but rather perceives through their intimate zone. This helps to enhance the emotional confusion, anxiety, and dilemmas the central characters are facing.

Lukas Dhont's most recent work, Close, may come to mind as an LGBTQ+ drama from the perspective of a child. However, where Dhont wallows too much in the emotional states of the protagonist becoming over-sensitive, Solaguren focuses on the plotting. A rich yet transparent variety of topics and subjects adds a literary texture to 20,000 Species of Bees in terms of motifs, leitmotifs, and implicit plots.

The closest points of reference to Solaguren's debut are the works of Céline Sciamma (Petite MamanPortrait of a Lady on Fire), both tonal and stylistic, yet 20,000 Species of Bees is narratively epic, considering Sciamma's storytelling miniatures.

Solaguren's oeuvre is the little big cinema, a story of a child carving its own fate (and in that case also her mother's fate) against a family history in a longer narrative arch with deeply emphatic storytelling. Even though 20,000 Species of Bees might have been called a trans story, a term too politically laden, the film transcends the typical narrow category of a transistion tale.

The coming-of-age, coming-of-identity tale carries a side plot of the coming-of-middle-age story in a vibrant, occasionally melodramatic but powerful introspection of different shades of womanhood.

Sofía Otero won the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance; 20,000 Species of Bees received the Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas, and the Berliner Morgenpost Reader’s Jury Award.

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Berlinale 2023Estibaliz Urresola SolagurenSpain

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