Tag Archives: Tomboy

Review: Tomboy

[Rating:3.5/5]

[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.
Country: France
Running Time: 82 min.

LA Film Fest: Day Two (Saturday)

Even though it means four is pretty much the maximum number of films you can get in one day, I am kind of grateful for the fact that the LA Film Fest doesn’t program films in the morning. Getting a few extra hours of sleep in and a few hours of writing time before heading back for my first screening at 1:30pm was very useful – a luxury I won’t get many more days into this! I wandered downtown around noon (Saturday traffic in LA is no joke, however strange that seems to non-LA residents) and headed in to Please Do Not Disturb in plenty of time to get a choice seat.

I’ve developed a tradition of seeing Iranian films at fests whenever I can – they often don’t end up getting releases here, and I find I quite enjoy them. So far. I’m up to three now. Hopefully they continue the trend. The previous two I’ve seen were both underground films, filmed guerilla-style without government permits, which can be quite dangerous for the filmmakers and actors if they’re caught, since the Iranian government exercises complete control over the media, but can also yield really interesting stories about life in Iran that wouldn’t necessarily get portrayed in an approved film. As far as I can tell, Please Do Not Disturb is not an underground film, but a more mainstream-friendly comedy showcasing life in Tehran, but not showing anything particularly revolutionary or subversive. That said, it’s very funny, stringing three basically separate stories together with hilarious dialogue and delivery, the actors making the most of the comical situations presented. My full review is on Row Three.

Next up, one of the very few documentaries I’m catching at the festival. I’m not a big fan of documentaries, so either the subject has to be something that really interests me or I have to hear a ton of good things about the style before I’ll choose a documentary over a narrative film. In the case of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, it was the subject. I grew up in St. Louis, a decade after the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects closed down – I was in the suburbs, not the city, so I didn’t really have a knowledge of them except I remember vaguely hearing the name…but I don’t know in what context. The development was begun in the 1950s as a bright alternative to the overcrowded slums, steeply declined into disrepair and crime through the 1960s, and was finally demolished starting in 1972, leaving a 57-acre lot that remains vacant to this day. The fall of Pruitt-Igoe has become legendary as a failure of public housing, government programs, and modernism itself (thanks to the explicitly modernist architecture that marked the end of the great modernist building phase of the 20th century). This documentary looks beyond the surface, pointing to issues of depopulation and displacement that plagued St. Louis in the 1950s as well as issues of racial segregation and family-destroying welfare rules that all factored into the failure of Pruitt-Igoe, and conducting interviews with former residents about their experiences there, which are far more positive than you might imagine. It’s a well-balanced and interesting story that hopes to learn from the failures of the past to do better in the future, rather than just mark all such projects as doomed from the start. I was pleased with my choice of documentaries. My full review is on Row Three.

Unfortunately I had to leave before the Q&A with The Pruitt-Igoe Myth director Chad Freidrichs in order to catch French import Tomboy. I hate doing that, both because I love hearing Q&As, especially about films that intrigued me as much as The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, and because I feel rude leaving before them. But festival scheduling is sometimes tight, and you have to do what you have to do. I chose to sit in the back of the front section for Tomboy, which was probably a mistake – that particular screen was not that large, and the film was shot in a lot of hand-held closeups, which are a bit headache-inducing if you’re sitting too close. But I powered through, and the film’s lyrical quality ultimately made it watchable, even from my close vantage point. The eponymus eleven-year-old takes the opportunity of moving into a new neighborhood to pass herself off as a boy to the new kids she meets – she’s already far more comfortable with cropped hair, tank tops, and shorts than dresses, and it seems an easy step for her to introduce herself as Mikael rather than Laure. The charade continues for a while, with Laure taking more drastic steps to conceal the truth; but school is coming, and she can’t keep it up past then. I wanted a little bit more depth on the gender politics, but the film stays very aloof, not really delving into Laure’s psyche about what she’s doing – but staying away from psychoanalyzing Laure is probably a good choice ultimately, and the solid performance from Zoé Héran lends a depth that I’m not sure the script actually has. However, it’s Laure’s little sister Jeanne, at first a potential threat to her secret and later her best ally, who steals the show, her quick smile and winning sillyness distracting a bit too much from Laure’s more meditative demeanor. The film isn’t totally a success, but I always love good child performances, and the film has that along with some gorgeous cinematography to at least keep it interesting for the duration.

After Tomboy I had a good two and a half hour break before my final screening of the night, so I went in search of food. There are lots of upscale restaurants at LA Live, but not much in the way of cheap fast eats. I was hoping there’d be more food trucks in the area, but seemed like the taco truck across the street was pretty much the only option. Ah well. Maybe more will turn up throughout the week. After getting back to theatre, still with an hour to spare, I pulled out the trusty iPad and started writing up earlier films. I tell you, that thing is quickly becoming indespensible for things like festivals – more compact and better battery life than a laptop, but robust enough to type up reviews and get them posted. Very handy. Anyway, I headed in for Argentinian film Medianeras (or Sidewalls – it can’t seem to decide which title it wants to go by here at the fest), which promised to be an interesting little romantic drama/comedy. Set in Buenos Aires, the two main characters live across from each other in neighboring apartment buildings, but even though they go many of the same places and like lots of the same things, they never quite seem to connect. Meanwhile, they each have voiceovers talking about the difficulty of connecting in the modern age – millions of wires connecting everything via phone and internet and yet allowing more seclusion than ever as people never need to leave home to survive. It’s not a new thought by any means, but it’s done with great charm here, and the two leads are great. I must admit to nodding in and out of consciousness a bit simply because it’s not normal for me to be up until midnight anymore, but I found the film very pleasing.

I believe this was my most film-ful day of the fest, as I think all the other days max out at three films. I enjoyed all four films, but there probably won’t be any titles from today on my best-of-fest list. But there are still a lot films left to go, most of them unknown quantities, so I guess we’ll find out, huh? Two days down, eight to go. Six films down, nineteen to go.