Tomboy Review

In her second feature film, after Water Lilies (2007), Celine Sciamma returns to the big screen with Tomboy. She presents a tale of friendship, gender, and lies, with ten-year-old Mikael (Zoe Heran) as the new kid on the block during summer break. Mikael plays football, swims in the lake and strikes up a friendship with fellow neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson).
There is one small problem lurking in this ideal childhood summer. Mikael is in fact Laure, and is only pretending to be a boy in front of her new friends.
But with the new school term looming, and her parents in the dark about her assumed identity, how long can Laure keep up the act?

The concept of gender is bound to be the major talking point with this film. From the outset, the comparisons shown between Laure and her younger sister Jeanne (Levana) are stark in contrast. Jeanne wears a tutu, practices ballet dancing and wears jewellery, and is very much a ‘girly’ girl. She plays princess and wants to be a hairdresser when she grows up. Laure is rough-and-tumble, she gets into fights with the other boys and spits on the ground. But Laure is ten years old, why shouldn’t she wear baggy shorts to play football and fight and spit with her friends?
Tomboy questions the audiences preconceptions of gender roles, how important they are, and asks where the blurry line between male and female is, and how much it really even matters.

The family unit is intrinsic in Tomboy. Laure is close to Jeanne and both of her parents (Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy). Laure lets Jeanne in on the secret, leading to warming scenes between the sisters, where Jeanne gushes about her new best friend Mikael to their parents, or shows off to Cheyenne (Cheyenne Laine) about how tough her brother was when he saved her from bullies in their old home.
Scenes between Laure and her mother are often tinged with sadness. Her mother is visibly pleased to hear that she has made a female friend, as she was always ‘one of the boys’ in their old town. When Laure comes home from Lisa’s wearing garish make-up, her mother’s reaction is encouraging, telling her that she looks beautiful, unaware of how uncomfortable Laure is in ‘girl world’.

Friendships are also explored throughout the picture, and this was one of my favourite aspects. The relationship between Mikael and Lisa is essentially platonic because they are so young, but the undertones of a kiss on the lips cannot be ignored. Whether this friendship could survive the truth is one of the main hooks of the film. The age of Laure and Lisa gives the friendship an innocence that prevents the lie from being spiteful or manipulative, and avoid the heavy-handed labelling that teenage characters could attract.

The script is tightly written and unobtrusive, with everyday childhood activities taking on terrifying new obstacles. Every act in Laure’s day is consumed by her secret, dictating where she must take a pee-break during football games, and what she can wear when swimming in the lake. After taking a pair of scissors to her swimsuit, she sets to making a modelling clay prosthetic to fill out the crotch. It’s a startlingly sad act as Laure is so desperate not to be found out, but one that seems so logical from her position.
Sciamma creates tension in tiny moments, such as Laure removing her shirt to play ‘skins’ in football, or Lisa mentioning that ‘Mikael’ wasn’t listed on the class list at school, and Laure trying to convince her that he might not have been registered yet, because the family is new to the area. The audience is fully intended to be on the side of Mikael, willing the pretence to go on for just a bit longer whilst knowing full well that it cannot.

Throughout the film, there is an emphasis on the natural environment, with a lot of the action taking place outdoors. The shots of trees and the lake create an idyllic and innocent atmosphere where children shouldn’t have to worry about their identity nearly as much. The tight shots and small depth of field make this very much Laure’s story.

Zoe Heran is fantastic as Laure, playing her subtly with an emphasis on facial expressions and body language. Through this, the audience is given an insight to her desperate and hidden conflict. Her performance is honest and believable.
Jeanne is also very well acted, bright and sweet and extremely likeable, the two sisters have an enviable relationship. Jeanne’s complicity in Laure’s double life is heartwarming. The scene where Jeanne is trimming Laure’s hair and then they play moustaches was a touching relief and raised a genuine smile. Their relationship seemed genuine and translated to screen extremely well.
Cattani is realistic as a confused mother, not knowing how best to deal with a shock revelation. She is angry and embarrassed, worried about what the other parents will think, not knowing how to navigate such unchartered waters.
I enjoyed the ending too, it was neither devastating or cloying, just sad enough and hopeful enough to round of the picture.

Tomboy is a thinker of a film, one that might take a while to process. It is well made, with great performances, and definitely recommendable.

Tomboy is released September 16 2011

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