Out French filmmaker Céline Sciamma scored a hit in 2007 with her drama “Water Lilies,” about female teenagers exploring their sexuality. With her new film “Tomboy,” which opens at the Ritz theaters today, Sciamma explores a different kind of young female sexuality — that of a 10-year-old girl who passes herself off as a boy.
This absorbing character study opens with Laure (Zoé Héran), standing in a car as her father drives. She is enjoying the breeze and her freedom. He soon has her sit her in his lap so she can “drive.” Laure obviously has a close relationship with her family, and this becomes more evident as Laure’s family settles into their new home in a new neighborhood.
With her butch haircut, and her penchant for wearing boy’s clothes, Laure carefully cultivates her androgynous appearance. Meeting a neighborhood girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson), Laure reinvents herself as Michaël. Lisa soon introduces “him” to the other neighborhood boys. As Lisa is the only girl in the group, this handsome stranger intrigues her. She acknowledges to Michaël that she likes him because he is “not like the others.” Lisa even lets Michaël win a game to impress the other boys — and it does.
As the boys play soccer, Michaël stands on the sidelines with Lisa and watches them. He/she observes them shirtless and spitting. Later, at home, Laure emulates the boys’ behavior. She takes off her shirt, poses in the mirror and spits into the sink. The next day, at another soccer game, she removes her top and executes the moves she rehearsed.
“Tomboy” uses this and various other episodes to shrewdly address how Laure/Michaël’s gender identity is formed and developed. How others react/respond to Laure’s deception are what make the film so engaging.
Laure’s mother (Sophie Cattani) is unaware of her daughter’s double life. After Laure’s first day of playing outside with the neighborhood kids, mom is pleased that her daughter has made a female friend — because Laure usually hangs out with the boys. Later, when Lisa invites “Michaël” over to play, she puts makeup on “him.” Before Laure is able to wash it off at home, her mother catches her and tells Laure that it looks good. In another telling scene, Laure forms a phallus out of Play-Doh to keep up appearances when everyone goes swimming.
Sciamma films these revealing scenes with a very natural approach that draws viewers into the action. Because Laure is so eager to fit in and pass as a boy, her deliberate, dishonest behavior is credible. Sciamma’s observational style and focus on maintaining Laure’s point of view, helps make her character sympathetic.
Of course, “Tomboy” generates its dramatic tension out of Laure’s secret being discovered. A scene where Michaël needs to pee — and goes into the woods for some privacy — causes “him” some embarrassment. Later, when Laure’s sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) is aware of the secret, she is forced to play along with her “brother” until an incident with one of the other kids threatens the situation.
The dynamic between the two sisters is interesting and another layer to “Tomboy’s” gender politics. Watching the girls fight physically or share a bed together illustrates their closeness and their love for each other. In a pair of nice scenes of the sisters alone together, Laure poses for Jeanne’s drawing and plays music for her sister who dances to it. When Jeanne is with the other children, she is quick to tell them that her “brother” protects her. This suggests Laure has passed herself off as a boy before and that Jeanne has been her enabler.
In the film’s final reel, Laure must confront the truth of her identity, and the film generates some potent emotional moments in these scenes. Viewers will no doubt feel Laure’s anxiety as she waits for Lisa to return home to confess her masquerade to her friend.
Sciamma wisely celebrates her central character, who tries to live her life in a way that makes her happy and comfortable — even if there are stressful moments along the way. It is also refreshing that Laure’s mother accepts her daughter’s masculine look and behavior — albeit up to a point. Trying to get her daughter to wear a dress is one of the few real battles that take place between mother and daughter.
For all its assets, the real backbone of “Tomboy” is Héran’s fearless performance as the title character. She is completely convincing as “Michaël” and gets his mannerisms down cold. Her reactions to — and attraction for — Lisa are remarkable, and they speak volumes about her character.
“Tomboy” is a superb film that should resonate with anyone who grew up wanting to be — or playing with friends of — the opposite gender.