Director: Celine Sciamma
Starring: Zoe Heran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero
Humans are inherently social creatures, and the manner in which we each form a perception of our place in the world around us — and how our ego takes shape and form from our id — certainly relates as much to our interactions as any ingrained or telegraphed sense of social acceptance and duty. Capturing the fickle progress of that individual transformation, however, is a difficult task. A tender and perspicacious look at the toddling steps of adolescent character and personality, writer-director Celine’s Sciamma’s French import “Tomboy” assays the gender confusion and willful but not malicious deceit of a 10-year-old girl. Against a backdrop of overly programmed “issue dramas,” this movie is notable for its strong foundation in character and wholesale investment in psychology, rather than salacious plotting.
“Tomboy” centers on a family with two daughters who moves to a new suburban neighborhood during the summer break. At home with her parents (Mathieu Demy and Sophie Cattani) and bouncy, six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana, quite good), 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran) is content, if reserved. With her Jean Seberg haircut and gangly physicality, however, Laure is mistaken for a boy by the local kids, and decides to pass herself off as Mikael. Standing out from the other rambunctious guys, Mikael catches the attention of Lisa (Jeanne Disson), and a tentative, stilted courtship ensues. As the end of summer and the start of a school year looms, however, it seems that the expiration date on Laure’s fib is finally approaching.
For a film about the complex representations of childhood identity and burgeoning adolescent desire — pre-sexual, but still hormonally oriented — Sciamma’s sensitive and engaging movie remains largely apolitical and nonjudgmental, in ways that it’s certainly hard to imagine any mainstream American studio effort matching. “Tomboy” doesn’t shortchange its gender identity issues, but neither does it whip them up into a cheap, frothy tizzy, wherein opposing camps are merely given platforms to argue “pro” and “con” positions for Laure’s benign deceit.
In canny fashion, the film also retains a certain layered ambiguity about the honest degrees of Laure’s impulsivity in assuming Mikael’s identity. When she gazes at herself in the mirror, and starts mimicking the manner in which boys spit on the playground while playing soccer, is it born of pre-existing gender confusion or a sense of displacement from within, or rather a curiosity about the way that boys strut and pose? Saying much more risks spoiling the film’s delicate beauty, but when Laure’s secret unravels, the manner in which her family also reacts is interesting and thought-provoking — on an intellectual plane rather than some axis of perfunctory conflict. “Tomboy” is heartily invested in its title character, but Laure’s deception also impacts Lisa, young Jeanne and the rest of her family as well, and Sciamma (“Water Lillies”) hearteningly pays careful attention to those characters as well, coaxing wonderful, naturalistic performances out of her mostly young cast.
Written by: Brent Simon