In this acclaimed drama from Girlhood director Celine Sciamma, ten-year-old Laure moves to a new apartment with her parents and younger sister. Cropped hair and masculine clothing are already the norm for Laure, so when new neighbour Lisa accidentally mistakes her for a boy, she takes the opportunity to live out a new persona. As Mikaël, Laure has a confidence that eludes her as a girl and she is soon adopted and admired by Lisa and the local youngsters.
Tomboy is a movie about a kind of kids’ play, the kind that can turn ugly or confusing or, perhaps, even dangerous. Still, as a film experience, this fine French picture has a mood that’s sweet and delicate. It’s that rare thing, a grown-up movie about kids. It’s not romantic about anything or anyone and it never gets sentimental. I have to confess it’s been sometime since I was 10 years old, but watching this often painful story I had quite a few 'time warp’ moments that took me back to the playground. As adults we learn to block out embarrassment and cover it up with lies, charm or spite. But for kids, such desperate moments hit hard. I’ve never seen a better movie about the subtle, unspoken pressure kids impose on themselves in order to fit in and belong.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the film’s tiny but substantial plot is about a little girl who pretends to be boy. As the movie opens, 'tomboy’ Laure (Zoe Heran) has just moved into a new neighbourhood with her Mum (Sophie Cattani) and Dad (Mathieu Demy) and adoring little sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana). When Laure starts to mix with the local boys and girls she meets pretty, longhaired Lisa (Jeanne Disson). Without seeming to think about it, Laure introduces herself as 'Mikael’. Always dressed in shorts and shirt, flat-chested, skinny, with short-spiky blond hair and facial features that seem non-gender specific, none of the kids peg 10-year-old Laure for a girl. And from here things get complicated: Lisa develops a crush on 'Mikael’ and begins to make emotional demands. Meanwhile, Laure needs an ally to support her subterfuge so she enlists little Jeanne, who, at first, sees the whole gender-swap thing as just another delightful game to enjoy with big-sis.
Sciamma is in no hurry to tell the story; the film unfolds in a series of beautifully observed little beats that at first don’t seem to mean much at all. We observe Laure at home and at play; sharing jokes with mum and dad, toying with Jeanne. But what Sciamma is doing is carefully laying the groundwork for how easy it is for Laure to 'cover’ her sexual identity. There’s none of that kind of heavy-handed dialogue, or social instruction from mum or dad (as in 'why don’t you wear a dress, sweetheart?), no anxiety from her family about how she looks, or how she might be perceived by the outside world. We don’t know for sure Laure is a girl until we see her and Jeanne sharing a bath, a scene that appears well into the movie’s main action.
Shot often up close on the Canon 7D by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, Tomboy has a 'lived in’ look that’s really quite beautiful and poetic. The season and settings here are important; the shadowy rooms of the flats are contrasted with the bright leafy expanse of the surrounding woods. The kids are enjoying the last of the summer break and the days seem long and the sun is bright on their skin. The cast here also have a lived-in feel that’s really moving; the kids are great – they’re not acting but being – and the adults transform their tiny roles into a few high impact moments.
Tomboy is one of those pictures with a fascinating mystique. It’s ironic and human and it’s got a sense of lived experience that’s dense and optimistic and troubling all at once. Part of the fun of the film is its elusive quality. I mean, what’s really going on here? On a certain level, obviously, it’s a rather wholesome account of one child’s sexual rites of passage. Laure tests boundaries, and dares to lead a 'secret’ life where she gets to play a power game of her own making, but it’s one that comes at a price. After all, she goes to elaborate lengths to disguise her sexual identity, down to fabricating a plasticine male 'member’ so her tight fitting swimmers have something to 'show’. And, of course, at a certain point, her 'game’ is exposed and there’s tears and sorrow"¦
Still, I got the feeling that Sciamma has ambitions for her charming, modest film. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that the whole piece is a bit of an ironic fable about our sex obsessed, image driven, boxed-up gender-labeled world. I mean, Laure gets to choose how she’s seen and who she wants to be; she has fun (and hurts a few people besides) and learns a lot about the world and herself in the process. In that way, it’s a classic gender-swap yarn. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s feels deeply and plays true.