★★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the beginning, “Tomboy” establishes itself as a movie that demands observation and comparison. There is a scene that takes place in a bedroom where two siblings are roughhousing, laughing, and talking. One is very feminine: long, frizzy hair bouncing about, expressive facial expressions, and the voice is very high. The other is masculine: short haircut, more relaxed in personality, and a competitiveness surfaces when playing gets physical. The film is composed of showing a scenario and moving onto the next one. In that way, it feels like we are conducting a social research.
Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have just moved into an apartment. She sees a group of neighborhood kids over the balcony so she rushes downstairs with hopes of befriending them. However, once she gets there, all have gone except for one. Lisa (Jeanne Disson) remains and introduces herself to the new girl. When asked what her name is, Laure responds that she is Mickäel. Lisa accepts that Laure is a boy. After all, she looks, walks, talks, and stands like a boy. Soon, there is even an attraction that grows between them.
It is not a story about being gay, straight, or anything in the middle: it is less about sexual preference and more about gender identity. Héran does an excellent job in conveying the frustration of looking in the mirror and recognizing that something feels and looks wrong. Since she cannot change what is there, she tries her best to emulate. She looks at the guys playing basketball without a shirt; she goes home and examines the frame of her body, to check to see if it “looks” right or is similar to others. Behavior is also important. She notes that they tend to spit. She tries this, too. Whatever has to be done in order to maintain the illusion, she does it. The camera watches with captivating stillness.
The parents are equally fascinating to watch. They know that their child acts like a boy but they do not make a big deal out of it. That is, until they do. Not so much the father (Mathieu Demy)—he seems to accept Laure unconditionally. I did not expect their relationship to have much tenderness. I was a bit surprised because in movies, the father is often portrayed as the one having a problem when his child does not turn out as he imagined or expected in the gender or sexuality department. This time, the mother (Sophie Cattani) is the one worth watching very closely. Notice that when Laure acts like a boy, the mother does not seem to mind. However, when Laure acts like a girl or does “girly” things, her mother gives her positive reinforcement through kind words or physical contact.
Céline Sciamma’s direction and screenplay do touch upon the possibility of the neighborhood children finding out about Laure’s secret. However, it is not formulaic. Because the topic is dealt with intelligence, sensitivity, and insight, if her gender is in fact made known, the central concern is whether Laure will be able to continue living her life the way she wants to, not so much the kids being accepting or cruel to her. Movies that focus on the latter are dime a dozen. Since “Tomboy” is able to maintain focus on its subject despite the pitfalls that inevitably lead to clichés, it offers something special.
To those who have a problem with the frontal nudity involving the lead performer, I have something to say to you: Grow up. It is not meant to titillate or excite; it is meant to show a fact. It is relevant to the story that we know, with absolute certainty, that the person before us is a girl despite her looking so much like a boy. Having this knowledge gives us a compass on how the topic of gender fluidity is relevant to this specific character. There is a difference between art and pornography. Please educate yourselves before you make venomous claims that the film supports or advertises pedophilia. More films should aspire to deliver searing insight and honesty at this level.