(Céline Sciamma , 2011, France)
Céline Sciamma’s second feature, after 2007’s Water Lilies, is a curious, quietly observant little film which is about as deceiving as its protagonist; on the surface it appears to be a regular coming of age tale of one girls journey into adolescence, yet brimming underneath is something altogether more complex, puzzling but, considering the plot, by no means tactless. A discreet revelation, Zoé Héran stars as Laure, a genial ten year old who has recently moved into a new apartment block in the French suburbs with her family. Laure cuts an uncharacteristically boyish figure, with her short messy hair, ill-fitting clothes and pre-adolescent physique a far cry from six-year-old sister’s girly girl style, and she uses this to convince the neighbourhood youths that she is a boy named Michaël, a pretense that arouses some inescapable circumstances.
Embracing but never imparting judgment on gender politics, Tomboy treats its distinct subject matter with an enlightened gentility and is never as problematic as films with a similar focus, namely Kimberly Peirce’s visceral, classification-challenging Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and, perhaps, the Spanish film XXY (2007),which deals with a pre-pubescent character coming to terms with the fact that she was born a hermaphrodite. Here Sciamma trades in overwrought angst in favor of delightful nuance and child-like innocence, though her attentive directing style couldn’t be more learned, and focuses all of her unfortunately short 82-minute runtime on the interplay between her younger characters whilst demonstrating a clear talent for teasing out realistic performances from first-time actors. The relationship between Laure and her younger sister Jeanne (a scene-stealing Malonn Lévana) is warm and naturally portrayed, with Héran excelling as the lead, with her intricate facial features, piercing blue eyes and wiry frame standing in for the lack of any expositional dialogue, itself one of the films strongest assets due to the way it rarely dumbs down or over-explains the reasons behind Laure’s fabrication. Though the shortage of illumination renders the film somewhat underdeveloped.
Imitating the way she transplants the outwardly mundane setting into an auburn late summer playground, Sciamma’s screenplay juxtaposes the narrative’s latter stage emotional turbulence with an undeniable charm, and takes advantage of every opportunity for light, occasionally bawdy humour, be it Jeanne exploring the fantasy of having a protective older brother, Laure imitating her friends’ tendency to spit on the ground, or fashioning a penis out of Play-Doh to line her makeshift swimming trunks. It’s sequences like this that, to some extent, break the boundaries of contemporary films aimed at both a younger audience and an audience interested in a grown up kids film told fully from their perspective, which celebrates child-like ingenuity and sidesteps gratuitous exploitation in the process.