Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
Produced by Bénédicte Couvreur
Released by Rocket Releasing
French with English subtitles
France. 82 min. Not rated
With Zoé Heran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani & Mathieu Demy
When a kid moves to a new town, the past can be left behind for a fresh start. In Tomboy, a shy, short-haired, scrawny 10 year old uses that opportunity to express a different identity and live a new life.
The first individuals the kid successfully tests are us, the audience, when Mikael introduces himself to the diverse group of suburban kids in the new neighborhood. We accept him without question, even though the pretty girl in the same apartment building, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), muses he’s somehow not like the other boys roughhousing in the late days of summer before school begins. We don’t get a peek how until we see the kid at home. Once the loving dad leaves the apartment each day for work, the home is suffused with femininity. The mother is on late pregnancy bed rest, six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) is a bubbly ballerina in pink with a curly mane, and when the siblings bathe together, we see that Mikael is, in fact, Laure (Zoé Heran).
Each day is a suspenseful challenge of how Mikael/Laure keeps up the freeing masquerade, and it is striking to see how much gender casually figures into the daily life of children at play. While Lisa is restricted to the sidelines of a shirts vs. skins soccer game, Mikael carefully picks sides to join in and get back slaps for scoring goals. (That the group is played by real friends of the very believable Heran may help foster the sense of camaraderie.) But Mikael has to (amusingly) practice the boys’ behavior and body language at home and cleverly figure out how to hide in plain sight at the swimming hole. Games of truth and dare and tentative flirtations with Lisa are a bit more complicated to navigate.
Writer/director Céline Sciamma is more subtle in this second feature than in the sexual identity explorations of older kids in her debut Water Lilies (2007). When the little sister figures out the ruse, she enthusiastically enters into the play-acting game, innocently not seeing it as a more fundamental identity switch. In a hint that Laure acting like a tomboy isn’t new, the mother is pleased at first to hear that she has found a girl friend to play with, and is even experimenting with make-up.
When angry parents are brought into the kids’ relationships, the truth is revealed but discussed behind closed doors to keep the film’s focus on the children’s perspective. However, the original French dialogue and slang may play more verbal tricks than as translated in the English subtitles, especially when the surprised friends process the news. Yet for all the shock of seeing Laure resentfully forced into a wearing a dress, Tomboy is more sweetly sensitive than all the recent TV magazine features on transgender children (British Channel 4’s take was tellingly from the “BodyShock” series), with no experts needed.