France (2011) Dir. Céline Sciamma
A family of four moves into a new home – a husband (Mathieu Demy), a heavily pregnant wife (Sophie Cattani) and two daughters, six year-old Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) and ten year-old Laure (Zoé Héran). With her propensity for all things boyish and matching appearance, Laure introduces herself to the neighbourhood kids as Mickäel and is quickly accepted as the new boy on the block, but keeping her secret may not be so easy.
Fitting in with society’s expectations, rules and compartmentalisations is tough for most people, while others seem to make it harder for themselves by openly flouting the conventions to suit their own identities and will. Then they are those who simply defy convention through no fault of their own. Tomboy is a film that takes a look at someone who represents the last example, placing the onus on a ten year-old girl who seems to have identity issues.
Or does she? Is Laure a victim of society’s myopic guidelines or is she an unwitting rebel? Does she suffer from gender confusion or is she simply not suited to a girl’s lifestyle? We don’t get the answers in Céline Sciamma’s 82 minute movie but we do get a tender and charming essay looking into the subject.
It is only the published synopsis that gives away Laure’s true gender. For all intents and purposes she is a boy – at the very most an often effete looking one. From the opening shot until some fifteen minutes into the film, no concrete evidence is given to the viewer about Laure’s true gender.
The first visual clue comes via full frontal glimpse during after a bath time session with Jeanne. Laure, introducing herself as “Mickäel”, then meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson) who takes an immediate shine to this gangly young lad. In a later scene, Lisa applies some make-up to Mickäel, informing “him” that he “looks much better as a girl”.
So convincing is Laure as Mickäel that not only do all the other boys immediately accept the sporty newcomer too, but keeping up the pretence has its problems when the group go swimming and Laure only has a girl’s swimming costume and nothing to fill out the groin area like the other boys. Fear not – a pair of scissors and some playdoh provide an authentic makeshift solution so the secret is safe. Until Jeanne finds out by accident when a smitten Lisa comes calling looking for Mickäel.
The younger sister, who is a delightful little thing, is every inch the girl from the dresses, to the dolls to the need for a strong male protector. It is evident from the onset that she adores and idolises Laure, always wanting to remain in her company and willingly keeps the secret from her parents (in exchange for some playtime with her new friends naturally).
This leads to one of the most touching and adorable scenes in the whole film, just after the crisis point of Laure being found out, where Jeanne slips into Laure’s bed and after a guessing game, puts a comforting and supportive arm around her sister. Awwww bless.
As one would expect for a story based on the subject of transgender confusion, the inevitable revelation brings with it an angry reaction from the kids; but while the usual prejudices surface in this reaction, the foundation isn’t blanket homophobia, rather simple anger at being lied to, unlike the unbridle, blinkered disgust and vitriol adults would exhibit.
The nearest we get to the former is the idea that Lisa kissing another girl is “disgusting” but kids are naturally silly like that anyway, without the added distraction of gender assignment to cloud the issue for their unformed minds.
Young actress Zoé Héran couldn’t have picked a more challenging role for her big screen debut but she delivers one of the most, natural, convincing and immersive performances ever seen, made all the more impressive by her young age. Héran doesn’t just physically and aesthetically adapt herself to the role – leaving the viewer wondering if they were actually watching a male performer – but she embraces every nuance of the male mannerisms with acute perception and delivered with remarkable subtlety.
Hers is obviously the toughest role to play with the rest of the young cast merely acting as themselves (i.e –as young kids would) yet she fist in perfectly with them. As mentioned earlier Malonn Lévana as Jeanne is adorable and also delivers a sublimely deft performance for such a youngster. Granted some of her lines are a little advance for a six-year old but she is equally responsible for the creating a believable dynamic between the two sisters.
Céline Sciamma is to be commended and congratulated for tacking a difficult subject and handling it with such heart, warmth and sensitivity. Tomboy is rich with intelligence and straight forward, non-judgemental story telling. The poignancy of this low budget but beautifully shot film touches the viewer deeply, resulting in a truly effective and rewarding treat for discerning cinephiles.