Sunday, 23 August 2020



Writer director ~ Céline Sciamma

France, 2011


Ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran), seeing her chance when her family has to move due to dad’s work, presents herself as a boy to her new neighbourhood friends.

Céline Sciamma talks of ‘Tomboy’ being in part like a thriller, and indeed it is as the threat of Laure’s deception being discovered that powers the drama. We see her watching the boys play football and assessing the possibilities, how she can mimic that budding masculine bravado and rough-and-tumble. They already know her as Michaël so all options are open. But at home, she’s so sweet with her younger sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), and these scenes are mostly the core of the film for being so touching and natural. Where Laure-Michaël is most at ease, probably. She’s not trying to run away from anything: it’s a loving home. She’s just exploring identity.

I have seen criticisms that the film doesn’t fully delve into its issues, but the open-endedness means it’s a film that opens the questions without judgement. Is Laure-Michaël transgender, non-binary or gay or simply boyish in a world that prescribes rigid gender roles and regulations? It is a testament to the successful androgyny that the film solidifies in Laure-Michaël that when forced to wear a dress, it just looks wrong on her. When mum reprimands her, it is for the deception rather than hint of transgressing gender roles as in ‘Pelo Melo. There is no sense her family will reject her: that’s not where the tension is.

Orla Smith writes: “Things get more complicated when adults and Mikhael’s peers discover how they’re presenting themselves and take objection to it, a disruption of the peace and happiness Mikhael experiences before bigotry came into play.” But even here, I am hesitant to attribute their reaction primarily to learned prejudice rather than outrage at the deceit: that’s not fully how it struck me.

Certainly the scenes between the sisters are the most disarming moments because little Malonn Lévana is so amusing and charming as only young children can be. Sciamma’s triumph is in giving the kids enough space to be themselves. For example, the scene where the sisters are playing a “Guess who?” game, lying in bed, is so raw and unaffected that it is a surprise to hear it took three takes. The glee Jeanne takes in harbouring and even toying with the secret she’s been entrusted with is both delightful and suspenseful (will she be able to keep the secret??).

It’s all filmed in the bright sunshine of A Lost Childhood summer, but it isn’t troubled like ‘Summer 1993’, or unforgiving and heart-wrenching like ‘Pelo Melo’, or a pastel-hued memory as in ‘Pain & Glory’. It has a similar buoyancy and affinity for its age-group as ‘We are the Best’, but ‘Tomboy’ is even more lowkey in aesthetic. It effortlessly catches the everyday bubble of amusements of children at play, but its questions about character and identity are foremost and sympathetic. Without answers or judgement, it conveys the mysteries and confusion of forming individuality, and speaks empathically to that moment when children are wondering just what they are amongst their peers, let alone the adult world.

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