Starring Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, and Mathieu Demy
Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma
Tomboy is the story of a young French girl named Laure who introduces herself to a new group of friends as a boy named Mikael. When watching the film, I found that when Laure was at home, surrounded by her family, I tended to use female pronouns, while when Mikael was playing with his friends, I tended to use male. I’ve used both pronouns in this review, because the film doesn’t make any definitive statements about Laure’s gender or sexual identity. While I certainly would understand someone reading this as a trans* film or a film about genderqueer identity, I’m reluctant to assign a label when the film declines to do so. I hope this doesn’t cause anyone injury or offense.
Laure is a tomboy. She dresses in shirts and pants, keeps her hair cut short, and has little interest in makeup or the more traditionally feminine toys her little sister plays with. Her family accepts this and doesn’t discourage her, even showers her with affection and love. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I haven’t been taught to expect this kind of family narrative when dealing with issues of gender or sexuality. Laure is their daughter, and they love her, and that is enough. But when they move to a new neighborhood, the first kid Laure meets mistakes her for a boy, and Laure takes this opportunity to become Mikael, the new kid in town.
What follows is a mix of summertime games, family love, and the constant risk of exposure, a potent blend of sweetness and anxiety which kept me simultaneously tense with fear and nearly melted with tenderness. Mikael makes friends, growing close with Lisa, the only girl close to his age in their group of friends, and struggles to maintain his new identity in the face of daily challenges. It is heartwarming and heartwrenching in about equal measure, making you cheer for someone you know must fail.
Laure’s family life is the sweetest and safest place, with scenes punctuated with such tenderness I almost couldn’t stand it. Sciamma got such a genuine and adorable performance out of her child actors, and Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne, will absolutely break your heart with cuteness. As Mikael comes closer every day to inevitable exposure, his home, and especially Jeanne, become a safe place, an unconditional place, where Laure can be herself without fear. Her parents love her, and her sister loves her, and they all want her to be safe from harm. This sense of safety makes it more bearable when Laure’s identity is exposed, but, in a way, it also makes it more painful. There is no more sanctuary.
I say “inevitable exposure” because it is summer, and classes begin in a few short weeks. Mikael is not on the rolls. Laure is. And the friendship of children is as quickly retracted as offered. Watching Mikael at play is like watching any young boy play soccer in a minefield. Everything could explode at any moment, and I watched with a knot in my stomach, knowing his luck couldn’t last, but hoping it would for just a bit longer. Laure likes being Mikael, maybe even prefers it. The way she looks at her newborn brother with something like envy, because he simply is born a boy while she has to do so much work, speaks to the happiness she has found in her new identity, and the bitterness of knowing that it cannot last. When the reckoning comes, it is shattering and humiliating, tempered only by the love we know her family has for her, and the strength Laure has shown throughout.
Despite its pain and anxiety, Tomboy feels like a hopeful film to me. It so perfectly captures the summer of childhood, with its innocently vulgar games of truth or dare, its petty humiliations, its quiet romances. Laure is an exceptional character, less pulling a con and more finding herself. And the story is ultimately one of love, even if that love is severely tested. Sciamma leaves the ending, like Laure’s sexuality, intentionally ambiguous, but I think there is hope in it. Laure learned something from her experience, and even if her experiment couldn’t last, she was changed by it. And, I have to believe, she is going to be okay.