Film Review – Tomboy
A truly great child actor can illicit emotion from the viewer in ways that dissolve once the barriers to adulthood begin to be crossed. Perhaps this is because seeing a child invoke that kind of emotion reminds us that they feel as deeply as we “grown-ups” do, and that our own pain was never silly, like we might now think of it. Perhaps it is because of the inherent helplessness of childhood, where you must face your problems in ways that others determine for you, and the audience cannot judge the character and say “this is what I would have done.” Or perhaps we just enjoy marveling at talent that comes so young. Whatever the case, the pull is there, and I felt it to an amazing degree while watching the star of Tomboy (2011).
Zoé Héran is so good that it is hard for me to believe that writer/director Céline Sciamma didn’t craft the lead role with her already in mind. (IMDb, for what its worth, states that Héran was found on the first day of casting.) Playing a child struggling with a gender identity that doesn’t conform to social norms, she displays a range that goes from simple, playful joy to deep agony, fear and confusion. Laure is a 10-year-old biological female, but sports a short hair cut, dresses a long, lanky body in boys’ clothes, and generally physically puts forth a visual image that reads “boy.” New in the apartment complex after a family move, a neighbor girl identifies Laure as a boy, and the moment passes uncorrected—in fact, when prompted, Laure gives a boy’s name. And so Mikael is born.
You may notice that I’m avoiding using gendered pronouns to refer to Laure/Mikael. This is the point where my urge to derail my own review into a conversation about transgender issues, and transgender children in particular, can barely be contained. I am in no way an expert, but I care and pay attention, and it’s hard for me not to pull out my “gender is a construct” vocabulary and go off on a rant that would probably end with just typing “let your kids be who they are!” over and over and over again. But in all caps. Definitely in all caps.
In any case, the fictional child in question lives in a world where either you are a girl, or you are a boy, and the answer is between your legs. This is not to say that Mom and Dad are bad people. The family is obviously happy, and they have no issue with the boys’ clothes or short hair or soccer or playing in the woods—they just won’t let it go any further. They feel they can’t, that there’s no mechanism even to do so. There is only so long that Laure can be Mikael, with a pregnant mom mostly on bed rest, a dad busy with a new job, and a little sister who plays along with the game for the other kids. Soon someone else will find out, and if not…school will start, and the nametag will not say “Mikael.”
Tomboy is strong on all fronts. Besides Héran, the other child actors here are splendid, particularly Jeanne Dison as Lisa, who has a crush on Mikael, and little Malonn Lévanna as the sister who obviously adores her older sibling no matter what. The film takes its time with each scene, creating a leisurely pace, but tells the story succinctly, coming in at only 82 minutes. Beyond the performances and the writing, it is beautifully shot, often emphasizing human bodies against the varied physical backdrops of our lives: flowered wallpaper; bathroom porcelain; rough bark; tall grass. Many different backgrounds for the one body that contains a single person.
This is a film that was in so many ways lovely, filled with depictions of breathless childhood friendships and the freedom of summer. But I dreaded all along the way the inevitable moment when it had to come crashing down. I felt a profound sadness for this character, and for many, many real children who are viewed and treated in a similar way. The film doesn’t go so far as to confirm that this is a permanent situation for Laure; indeed, the very title contradicts it—a “tomboy” is something that only a girl can be. But what I see in that character’s instinct and determination and pain is not a girl, but a boy who was unlucky enough to be born in a biologically female body, and what I wanted was for the film to push further with that message. Perhaps that is presumptuous or unfair of me. Either way, it’s still one of the best films I’ve ever seen to address this kind of issue.
Tomboy opens today at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
Final Grade: A-