Written by Amelia Abraham
11 Sunday 11th September 2011

Our tomboy is Laure, a sensitive and astute ten year-old girl, whose androgynous appearance makes her gender indecipherable.  When Laure and her family move to a new apartment complex, their neighbour Lisa initially mistakes Laure for a boy. Laure decides to roll with it, introducing herself as Mikael. In the Summer weeks that ensue, Laure falls increasingly comfortably into her new role; playing football with the boys, getting into fights and even embarking on a romance with Lisa. But as the school year approaches, Mikael’s identity is threatened and with it, the relationships “he” has forged.

In her second feature film, Céline Sciamma again presents herself as a master of empathy. Her profound insight into the psychology of children carries the script, an insight she kindly shares with her viewers. By deciding not to clarify Laure’s gender for the audience until we are affronted with a shot of the protagonist’s anatomy, Sciamma cleverly places us in the uncertain position of those characters tricked by Laure. We ourselves become subject to her deception. However, through careful character crafting, we ultimately forgive Laure her web of unashamed lies, favouring her determination and humility. If we feel pangs of triumph when Laure outdoes the boys, we are equally likely to shift uncomfortably in our seats at her embarrassments, which she herself endures without wallowing.

Although the narrative guides us through such everyday and, relatively speaking, inconsequential dramas of children, Tomboy remarkably just does not get boring. Maybe this is because of the unsteady camera, tirelessly tracking its subjects documentary style. Or maybe it’s because, when the camera does rest, the compositions are not only utterly beautiful, but also aptly childlike in their simplicity- clean and bold in the way that you might find a children’s picture book. The result is at once stylised and understated. Not a single shot feels superfluous.

If one had to criticise (and trust us, it’s a stretch), there is a scene in which Tomboy arguably succumbs to cheesy; Mikael and Lisa dancing around the latter’s bedroom, hand in hand, to the sound of some juvenile and grating French pop music. The break from an otherwise sparse soundtrack seems incongruous, as does the two protagonists’ behaviour, particularly Lisa’s, who ordinarily appears so world-weary. The other more light-hearted scenes serve the film well however, given that it’s ending turns quite bleakly “Lord of the Flies”. One such memorable scene would be when Laure must construct a Play-Doh penis in order to appear as Mikael for a swimming trip to the lake with friends. “What are you making?” repeatedly nags Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne, who provides much of the film’s humour. Given that the insanely cute Malonn Lévana who plays her is about six years old, you can’t help but marvel at the impeccable comedy timing throughout.

At risk of buying into romantic tales of casting, it is probably worth mentioning at this point that, after finding the spectacularly naturalistic Zoé Héran to play Laure, Sciamma enlisted Zoé’s real life friends as the ensemble (expect to feel about as close to the characters as they are to each other). Throw Jeanne Disson (as Lisa) into the mix, who sits perfectly on the awkward brink of puberty, and you’ve got one of the most convincing casts of children to date. Sciamma takes full advantage, steering away from a typical portrayal of childhood as innocent and instead presenting us with knowing and sensual characters.

Vitally, Héron plays androgyny plausibly. Although essentially two characters - at home we have Laure and outside we have Mikael - her humanity and likeability extends between both realms, and thus both genders. Sciamma seems to suggest (as Lisa finds out the hard way), that gender is cultural and behavioural as opposed to anatomical, and by implication, one might be attracted to either sex. Yet, if this is an LGBT film, it is certainly not a preachy one. Subtle in its statements, our only criticism would be that Tomboy’s message remains a little foggy; is gender identity “crisis” a crisis after all, or is gender to be overlooked?

Tomboy is on general release from 16 September

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