Despite a respectable debut with Water Lilies (2007), writer and director Céline Sciamma didn’t quite manage to create waves internationally, with most attention garnered in her native France. However, having already scooped awards in Berlin, Toronto and San Francisco, Tomboy (2011) should make people sit up and pay attention, not only due to Sciamma’s naturalistic script and instinctive directing, but also the remarkable ensemble of young talent that she has consolidated into one film.
Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have moved to quiet suburbia on the outskirts of Paris with only a few weeks until school begins. With her parents distracted by the imminent arrival of a newborn son, and only her little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) for company, Laure is keen to make friends with the local kids. Lisa (Jeanne Disson) takes an immediate shine to Laure, but due to Laure’s cropped hair, skinny frame and boyish clothes, Lisa mistakes her for a boy. At first, Laure slips into her new identity of ‘Mikaël’ with the greatest of ease, but keeping it up proves much more difficult and the lie only escalates until Laure is painfully (and literally) exposed.
To create an impacting piece of cinema about gender identity issues that also manages to provoke thought and entertain – whilst avoid preaching and long-winded introspection – is an achievement in itself. After also considering that the majority of the film’s script and screen time have been entrusted to children, it’s clear that Sciamma has created something quite special with Tomboy. Sciamma’s technical decisions, alongside cinematographer Crystel Fournier, are extremely intelligent, instinctively knowing when to fix a tight frame around the young actors’ faces and when to stand back and observe them simply being children.
With the exception of a couple of small TV projects, Tomboy star Zoé Héran is practically a newcomer, and a rare find indeed. Considering her age, her ability to deal with such complex subject matter, coupled with the naturalistic nature of her performance, should see her catapulted into the limelight. The same fate, no doubt, awaits her on-screen younger sister Malonn Lévana, whose portrayal as girly Jeanne shows maturity and understanding way beyond her years. Fellow French filmmakers will no doubt be on the case of Christel Banas, the film’s casting director, to discover where she found such young, local talent.
The nice thing about Tomboy is that although it explores themes of gender and sexuality, these issues don’t engulf the plot. Even though Laure’s sexuality is ambiguous, it’s not particularly important either – more compelling is the struggle Laure faces to fit in with the other children, whilst battling with her own sense of self. Essentially, Sciamma’s film is a coming-of-age drama around the period when self-consciousness and body-awareness start to creep into young children’s lives (and what an embarrassing time this can be). By seeing these complex issues through the eyes of children, Sciamma introduces a simplifying effect that gives the film charm and lightness, without compromising its substance.
Tomboy has echoes of Kimberly Peirce’s Oscar-winning effort Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and will inevitably draw comparisons (particularly the humorous attempts at replicating a penis), but neither film deserves to be lumped into the same category. Sciamma has managed to create a narrative that feels both personal and nostalgic, and gender issues or not, you’ll relive those feelings of childhood innocence transcending adolescent self-consciousness that made that time in life so significant.