17 Dec

Title: Tomboy
Year: 2011
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Zoé Héran, Jeanne Disson, Malonn Lévana, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 84 min
IMDb Rating: 7.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Metacritic: 73


Tomboy is a really nice new little French film, one that has a really wonderful sensitive side to it and that builds its storyline with a really well-constructed atmosphere to it. It’s a film about Laure, a ten year-old girl who, along with her six year-old sister and the rest of her family, moves to a new neighborhood during her summer vacation. Laure is, much like the film’s poster and title give away, a tomboy, with boyish mannerisms and a short haircut, and the rest of the boys in the neighborhood confuse her for one, and once she realizes it may just be too late to correct them, she goes along with it, passing herself off as a boy named Michael. And it’s a brilliantly charming look at gender confusion at such a young age, at the relationship between oneself and your own body, and in Zoé Héran it has found the most perfect performer to play Laure, playing her with a brilliant kind of naturalistic touch, never once seeming to be acting, but instead living her role and discovering her character just as Laure starts discovering herself.

It’s really awesome how a film like this can be so beautiful, the gender issues it touches upon are really deep and not what you’d expect considering we’re focusing on kids, but it never turns preachy or anything like that, it’s always very matter-of-factly, and that inevitable moment that looms over the film that Laure will be found out by someone to be doing what she’s doing really gets to you and sucks you into the whole film, even if the film kind of beats you in the head to ask that question more than once. This is the kind of film you’d have to leave it to the French to make, I really don’t think an American could nail with such precision the depths which Tomboy achieves, that’s not to say this is a perfect movie, but it’s very good and I think that sort of quietness that lingers through every frame and the naturalism to every performance and scene is a thing to really admire.

I’ve always been in love with French cinema. They do it right, they actually do cinema and not Hollywood movies or Indie movies, they make their own set of rules and play by them; if you like them that’s great, if not then you can go right ahead and watch your typical blockbuster with a definite structure and characters you’ve seen before. Tomboy is in that great vein of French cinema because writer-director Céline Sciamma does this in her own way, she takes her time to show things that other filmmakers would have shown pretty much immediately, she takes her time because she wants us to take a look inside Laure’s head, she wants us to understand exactly what she’s thinking in those moments in which she’s saying nothing, all the while exploring the relationship between sex and gender, between nature and nurture. And even if the story doesn’t develop into something of greatness, even if you can plot its path from miles away, this will be a film that pays off because of how she’s treated her characters, and because of how great she is working with the youngsters in her cast, actors that bring with them their own sense of how life is, messy and yet always in motion.

This is the first film I’ve seen of Ms. Sciamma’s, but from a look at her IMDb this is apparently her thing, making short movies (this one clocks in at under ninety minutes), that are light on plot but heavy on just how much they show young people in a process of self-discovery, I’m already itching to check out her 2007 effort, Water Lilies, that’s about teenage girls exploring their sexuality. But for now we have Tomboy to enjoy the hell out of, young Ms. Héran makes for a great Laure/Michael, looking attractive enough both as a boy and a girl, scoring goals and spitting in the playing field with the boys, but quietly sneaking off to the woods to take a pee while her teammates can go on the sidelines, standing up. And the best moments of this film are the ones in which we get kids being kids, which is why I praise the naturalistic approach Ms. Sciamma takes with this film, kids just being kids with no one supervising, asking questions and wanting to impress each other.

The one thing she does put a lot of weight behind is, like I said, the inevitability of Laure being found out. Those little moments do feel forced unlike the more organic bits I just mentioned about kids just being kids. That question obviously looms over the whole film and what little narrative drive the film manages to achieve in its short running time comes from that, but it’s a question that would have still come to us naturally, and I just couldn’t help but feel as though the film was trying too hard to get us to ask it. But nevertheless, no matter how persistently that question is asked, it’s still pretty heartbreaking when the conclusion arrives and Laure has to stop being Michael. This is a really nice little film, Ms. Sciamma is terrific at working with kids, and the young Ms. Herán is nothing less than brilliant, relishing the opportunity to play this character and really delivering.

Grade: B+


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