[Tomboy opens in limited release in the US this week, so I’m reposting and expanding my LAFF review; x-posted from Row Three]
Moving into a new neighborhood means new kids to play with, and a chance for ten-year-old tomboy Laure (already androgynous with cropped hair, tank top, and shorts) to pretend to be a boy with her new friends. Introducing herself as Mikael, she passes quite well, playing sports with the boys and hanging out with new friend Lisa in a perhaps more than friendly way. At home she continues to be Laure, and her parents have no idea that she’s lying about her gender elsewhere – though they do perhaps have something of an inkling that she is not particularly comfortable identifying as a girl.
Ten seems fairly young to experience gender identity issues as strongly as this, but writer/director Céline Sciamma wisely keeps the film focused on identity rather than sexuality. Yet this also introduces a certain ambiguity that may or may not be a good thing – when I initially saw the film in June at the LA Film Festival, I left the film confused as to whether Laure really did identify as a boy, or whether she simply wanted to do “boy” things and wear “boy” clothes. In other words, is she really just the tomboy of the title living in a society that for some reason restricts girls from doing boy things while still identifying as girls, or does it go deeper than that? I’m more inclined now to see that ambiguity as a plus than a minus, but it’s still definitely there for me. Others are seeing the film as a fully LGBT film (in fact, it played in an LGBT sidebar at LAFF), but I don’t think it’s necessarily that simple.
As the summer goes on and school looms on the horizon, Laure resorts to increasingly elaborate attempts to keep her secret, but eventually it comes out, and the pain of both returning to her female gender and having to tell her friends (and their families) that she lied to them is almost palpable. It’s a great central performance from Zoé Héran, who gets across both the joy in the early scenes of small things like being able to take off her shirt to play football and the humiliation of having her secret revealed in subtle and believable ways. It’s a very still performance a lot of the time, but she breaks out when she needs to for emotional impact. Even better, though, is Malonn Lévana as her little sister Jeanne. In between cavorting outside with Lisa and the boys, Laure stays home and takes care of Jeanne, drawing and playing with her without pretense. Jeanne is a live-wire, all smiles and giggles where Laure is very quiet and solemn. She steals nearly every scene she’s in, and the film (which sometimes threatens to lose itself in its own stillness) comes alive whenever she’s on screen. She figures out Laure’s secret before long, but keeps it, somehow intuiting even at her young age how important this is to Laure.
The very end adds to the ambiguity, suggesting that Laure actually has a long way to go before she figures out her own identity, but that’s okay. It holds forgiveness and tentative friendship, the rebuilding of bonds that could well have been severed completely. The film stays fairly aloof from its own gender politics, something that frustrated me a little on initial watch but that I think is ultimately a strength – a willingless to simply observe Laure without making overt statements of its own. At the same time, it also seems like it’s trying to be a little more profound than it actually is – gorgeous cinematography make it quite watchable despite the slow pacing, but also lend it a veneer of depth that the film doesn’t entirely earn.
Writer/Director: Céline Sciamma.
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur.
Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani.
Running Time: 82 min.