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Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)

Childhood identity is examined with rare intimacy and sensitivity in Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, a delicate pre-pubescent coming out drama that follows a Laure, a ten year old French girl who dresses as a boy and calls herself Mickäel to her new friends. Sciamma, who tracked emerging sexuality with the same sort of quiet observation as she does here in her excellent 2007 debut Water Lilies, manages to make Tomboy a film that obliterates assumptions about gender identity without lapsing into generalizing terms that do a disservice to the individuality of the central character. Indeed, some of the best scenes in Tomboy show Laure’s interactions with her little sister, Jeanne, and are completely divorced from the film’s central theme. The simple fact is that Sciamma seems to understand the psychology of childhood as much as any director has. From a behavioral perspective, every scene here rings true, which makes young Laure’s setbacks doubly heartbreaking.


After Laure befriends a group of boys and, Lisa, who is seemingly the only other girl in her new neighborhood, the film becomes a series of trials through which Laure attempts to keep her cover as Mickäel. Whether urinating with the other boys, fending off the advances of Lisa or going swimming in a makeshift speedo, each outing seems to inspire further anxieties and requires a careful combination of planning and improvisation. Naturally, the secret eventually comes out, but the grace with which Sciamma resolves the story is typical of her compassion demonstrated throughout.


The acting in Tomboy is uniformly excellent. Zoé Héran, in the titular performance, is the obvious standout, anchoring virtually every scene, but there isn’t a false note to be found among the cast. From any other technical perspective, Sciamma’s work is unobtrusive. There is no score. The bulk of the film is set in the sun-dappled outdoors, creating the feel of an idyll, even as Laure suffers, fraught with anxiety. Essentially, Sciamma stays out of the way of her characters, respecting them enough to allow their interactions to hold the film together. The resulting work is miniature in scale but substantially larger in impact. Far from surprising at any point, Tomboy nonetheless holds one’s attention though its sheer force of observation.



Jeremy Heilman