Moving to a new location presents a difficult challenge for any 10-year-old, but for Laure (Zoé Héran) this is perhaps a tougher journey than most kids her age are faced with. She fashions her hair in a close cropped-style and indulges in the type of activity characterised in the film’s title. But there appears to be more to her than merely engaging in male-orientated pursuits, and upon moving to the suburbs of Paris with her parents and younger sister, she decides to pass herself off as a young boy named Mikhael after meeting a group of children she’s due to begin the same school year with in a matter of weeks.
At first her ruse is pretty much flawless and she’s accepted into the group with open arms, as she’s more than capable of matching the boys in terms of footie skills and toy fighting. She even ignites the interest of the other female of the gang who is able to spot her uniqueness (“you’re not like the rest of them” she innocently proclaims), but as friendships develop, Laure has to resort to increasingly inventive ways to conceal her true identity. As the start of the new term looms ever closer, she struggles to live the life which she feels most comfortable with.
Tomboy is a superior entry in the rites of passage genre. In dealing with the potentially delicate subject matter of a prepubescent wrestling with transgender issues, director Céline Sciamma not only handles things with the utmost sensitivity (in a wholly sympathetic fashion) but she presents Laure’s plight in a manner which is accessible to audiences of all ages.
A beautifully shot and carefully-constructed film, Sciamma is able to elicit a truly remarkable lead performance from Héran. There’s a level of nuance and subtlety which betrays the young actresses’ age range by several years, and that same commitment to coaxing naturalistic performances extends to Mikhael’s circle of friends and even to her six-year-old sister, who is utterly charming and believable despite being so young.
It’s an incredible achievement by a director who is also intent on capturing small but significant tell-tale character details throughout, adding to the overall emotional richness (Laure quickly swaps the pink cord attached to a set of house keys given to her by her mother, with a non-gender specific white shoelace). At one point Laure is forced to wear a dress and what we’re presented with is one of the most alien images in recent cinema and heartbreaking.
If the laid-back and restrained atmosphere fails to offer up much in the way of anything resembling serious conflict, it’s hardly a problem as the film succeeds because of the mature and decidedly un-Hollywood stance it takes in observations such an issue (even if they’re not quite aware of the extent of Laure’s psyche, her parents are nothing but loving and understanding throughout). It’s exactly the kind of unshowy and thoughtful treatment which the subject matter needs to really resonate.
All superlatives directed towards Tomboy are entirely warranted, and in a perfect world the film would be viewed by a universal audience and not just relegated to that foreign arthouse crowd (which will undoubtedly happen). Essential viewing.
Not a huge amount here, but both the behind the scenes featurette and interview with Sciamma shed some light on her shooting process and demonstrate how she was able to work with her young cast and help them deliver those outstanding performances.