Out French filmmaker Céline Sciamma scored a hit in 2007 with her drama “Water Lilies” about female teenagers exploring their sexuality. Sciamma explores a different aspect of young female sexuality in her new film, “Tomboy,” a character study of a ten-year-old girl who spends a lot of time passing as a boy.
The film opens with Laure (Zoé Héran) standing up in a car with the sunroof open as her father drives, enjoying the breeze and her freedom. He soon has her sit in his lap so she can “drive.” Laure’s close relationship with her family becomes increasingly evident as they settle into their new home in a new neighborhood.
Laure carefully cultivates an androgynous appearance with a butch haircut and by wearing boy’s clothes. Laure reinvents herself as Michaël in meeting a neighborhood girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who introduces “him” to the local boys. Lisa is the only girl in the group and she’s intrigued by the handsome newcomer. She tells Michaël she likes him because he is “not like the others” and lets him win a game to impress the other boys.
As the group of boys play soccer, Michaël stands on the sidelines with Lisa and observes them shirtless and spitting. Later, at home, Laure emulates their behavior, taking off her shirt, posing in the mirror, and spitting into the sink. The next day, at another soccer game, Michaël removes his shirt and executes the moves rehearsed the evening before.
Episodes like this effectively demonstrate how Laure consciously develops a gender identity as Michaël. The reactions of others to how Michaël presents himself are what make the film so engaging.
Laure’s mother (Sophie Cattani), unaware of her daughter’s double life, is pleased that Laure has become friends with Lisa — she usually hangs out with the boys. When Lisa puts make-up on Michaël, Laure doesn’t get around to washing it off before her mothers sees it and wins a compliment she wasn’t trying for. Going swimming with the other kids, Laure uses Play-Doh to craft a penis to keep up appearances.
Viewers will find themselves drawn into the action and sympathetic to Laure’s perspective through the natural approach Sciamma brings to filming scenes like this. Laure’s obvious eagerness to pass as a boy makes her actions credible and compelling.
The dramatic tension in “Tomboy,” of course, comes from the possibility that Laure’s secret will be discovered. A scene where Michaël needs to pee — and goes into the woods for privacy — proves embarrassing for him. When Laure’s sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) becomes aware of the secret, she is forced to play along with her “brother” — at least until an incident with one of the other kids threatens to expose the sisters.
The dynamic between Laure and Jeanne lends another layer to the gender politics in “Tomboy.” Scenes of the girls physically fighting and also sharing a bed illustrate their close bond and love for each other. In a pair of nice scenes with the sisters alone together, Laure poses for Jeanne’s drawing and plays music for her to dance to. When Jeanne is with the other children, she tells them how her brother protects her.
In the film’s final reel, Laure must confront the truth of her identity in scenes that pack potent emotion. As she waits for Lisa to return home to confess the truth to her friend, her anxiety is palpable.
Sciamma wisely celebrates her central character, who at a very early age strives to live her life in ways that make her happy and comfortable despite all the stresses entailed. Her mother’s willingness to accept her masculine look and behavior — up to a point, at least — is refreshing, though the mother’s attempts to get Laure to wear a dress lead to one of their few real conflicts.
At the heart of “Tomboy” is Héran’s fearless performance as the title character. She is completely convincing as Michaël, getting a young boy’s mannerisms down cold. Laure’s relationship with Lisa and her attraction toward her friend speak volumes about who this fascinating youth is.
“Tomboy” is a superb film that will resonate with anyone who grew up drawn to the possibility of being a different gender or bonded closely with those who were.
Directed by Céline Sciamma
In French, with English subtitles
Opens Nov. 16
209 W. Houston St.