Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, a family moves into a new neighborhood, and a 10-year-old named Laure deliberately presents as a boy named Mikhael to the local children. Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Boubekri, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero and Cheyenne Lainé.
With the fervour that fans have devoured Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s likely any newbies to Sciamma will be turning their attention to some of her previous works and with only a handful to choose from, before long you’ll land upon Tomboy. Her second directorial effort is now almost a decade old but likely will only become more relevant for years to come. Taking on a story of a young girl at such a vulnerable age, struggling with her identity, is a herculean task in being kind, open, gentle and respectful, not many directors have a light enough touch to tackle it but Sciamma certainly does. Laure is your classic tomboy; the hair, the clothes, the interests and everything that makes people treat her more like a boy than a girl so when she’s presented with a group of kids who don’t know her, she takes the opportunity to fulfil that role she feels comfortable in, becoming Mikhael.
Having to make the film as a director is tough enough but being the young actress that the entire film rests upon is a whole other level of pressure; child actors aren’t always the most consistent but Zoe Héran shows grace and presence beyond her years. Her performance has a sparkling intensity that’s difficult to take your eyes off of, there’s a balance of her vulnerability and curiosity mixed with the inherent risk of people discovering Mikhael’s secret. That performance is allowed to come through so strongly due to the supporting actors that are fantastic backup in the form of Laure’s new friend Lisa (Disson), her sister Jeanne (Lévana), her mother (Cattani) and father (Demy). Firstly, the two young girls similar to Héran provide performances that have a surprising depth for their age, secondly while the parents present very average or expected personalities, the reactions that they have feel much more modern. While Demy presents Laure’s father as a gentle, kind man, Cattani as her mother brings more of the firm hand to the family, despite her character being mostly on bed rest, but you can still see the loving relationship that exists between her and Laure.
One of the strongest elements of the film and in particular the writing is the ratio of time spent before and after the secret is revealed, the latter is fairly short which allows for the film to be an exploration of self-identity and gender rather than simply about the ensuing confrontation of a lie. The majority of the film is dedicated to Laure experiencing social situations as Mikhael, exploring her attempts to fit in and to follow the examples that her new friends are setting. The simplicity of the story is beguiling, for the most part just following children being themselves and watching them build friendships, as well as the beautiful bond between sisters, Laure and Jeanne. All of which is complimented by the cinematography from Crystel Fournier, who has also collaborated on two other films with Sciamma, it keeps things down to earth but with a playful touch, adding a light and spirited atmosphere. Sciamma’s direction holds that beautifully light touch throughout, even in its latter moments of conflict, there isn’t a need to linger or delve into something more gruelling, it has all the necessary elements without needing to throw out the entire style the film has built up until that point.
Tomboy gracefully and respectfully handles an issue that is ever-present in our society, one that is only just beginning to understand the concept of transgender. It goes directly to the heart of a young girl’s struggle with her identity and her experiences of being trans while not even understanding it herself. Sciamma dives into a child’s world and she does it with kindness and intensity, Héran’s performance is enchanting and mixed with the directorial style feels like you get to experience the film through Laure’s eyes. The heart of this film is simply a child’s experience with gender, friendship and family, there’s no malice or any extended conflict, it’s gentle and natural, a film that perfectly captures the exploration of gender at such a tender age.