A 10-year-old kid tries on a new gender identity after moving to a new neighbourhood in Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s note-perfect sophomore film, which won the coveted Teddy award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Tomboy reveals a side of pre-adolescence rarely (if ever) depicted on the big screen, yet it never feels like a curiosity piece, nor is Laure (Zoé Héran), the titular character, portrayed as an outsider from a troubled home – which would probably be Hollywood’s take on this girl.
Sciamma is a subtle storyteller who lingers in the nooks and crannies of a loving family’s domestic life and coaxes terrific, very natural performances from her mostly young cast. Héran is on camera most of the time and has a thoughtful intelligence that holds your attention, even in sustained solo scenes – quite an accomplishment for a screen newcomer.
Laure is a quiet, tall, capable kid who, at least at first, seems comfortable in her own skin. She just prefers to dress in baggy boys clothing and keep her hair short and messy. Her outgoing six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), however, dances around in a frilly pink tutu. They’re an affectionate pair and watching their tender, playful sibling dynamic is a major pleasure of the film.
It’s summer and the sisters have just moved into a bigger home in a Paris suburb, with a soccer field and woods nearby. Their mother is days away from giving birth to their baby brother and has been told to get bed rest. Their father is away during the day. Laure is in charge of amusing Jeanne but yearns for more age-appropriate company.
When Laure ventures out alone for the first time, she is mistaken for a boy. Instead of setting the local gang straight, she introduces herself as Michael. Is she just anxious to fit in or is something more complex psychologically going on with this kid? Sciamma is less concerned with direct explanations than she is in watching how Laure responds publicly and privately to her increasingly stressful “double life.”
Soccer games (during which the local boys remove their shirts), trips to the swimming pool (Laure tailors her swimsuit and “stuffs” the front) and even a dash into the woods for a pee might reveal Laure’s true identity. Then Lise (Jeanne Disson), a pretty girl who hangs out with the local boys but is often pushed to the sidelines of their games, develops a crush on “Michael” and comes calling. Laure has to strike a bargain with her little sister to keep the secret.
Cinematographer Crystel Fournier bathes the film in summer hues, and Sciamma weaves close-up shots of the sisters’ bare hands and feet and other little poetic details into her narrative. It may be a slim story, but its gentle humour, natural rhythm and above all authentic performances make Tomboy beautiful, intimate cinema.
Tomboy opens Friday in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver at Vancity.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed and written by Céline Sciamma
- Starring Zoé Héran, Mathieu Demy, Sophie Cattani, Malonn Lévana and Jeanne Disson
- (In French with English subtitles)
- Classification: PG