When you look at the photo above do you see a boy or a girl? Would the child’s name be Michael or Laure? The role of gender identity in Celine Sciamma’s second feature film Tomboy is front and center as her protagonist, a 10 year-old girl, pretends to be a boy over the course of one summer.
Laure’s family has recently moved to a new suburb in France. With her short blonde hair and ambiguous features it is unclear on first meeting Laure on screen if she is indeed a boy or a girl. This of course begs the question, “what makes a person look like a boy or a girl?” Laure prefers the walls of her bedroom to be blue, and her parent’t happily oblige. She wears long shorts and t-shirts, never a dress. Her short cropped hair is typical for a boy of her age, as is her lack of girly attributes like barrettes. When she speaks her voice does not carry high or low, with no indicative speech markers of either gender. But Laure is a girl by birth, she just happens to not outwardly portray feminine characteristics and in turn her first meeting with a local girl, Lisa, results in the misunderstanding that Laure is indeed a boy; and she does nothing to correct the situation.
Over the course of the summer Laure plays the role of a boy with the local kids, as well as with Lisa who ultimately falls in love with Michael (Laure’s “other”). She must keep the secret hidden from her family, a family she is incredibly close to including her little sister with whom she shares a special bond that is noticeable immediately. The lying does not stop there for Laure. Faced with the obstacles of being a boy she must adapt and change. She examines herself in the mirror often, comparing her body to that of the neighborhood boys. She takes risks to play the part, removing her shirt to play football like the boys do; but as the viewer is aware this is unacceptable behavior for a girl. Laure even goes so far as to create genitalia for herself so she may go swimming and look the part of a boy in every way. Whether Laure is playing a harmless game as children do when they are discovering themselves or if she does indeed feel more like a boy than a girl in her own skin is never directly addressed. When her secret is revealed there is no long conversation between her and her parent’s about gender identity and how she feels about herself. The topic is left mute, aside from making Laure reveal the truth to her neighborhood friends regardless of the consequences it may hold for her in the coming school year. This lack of confrontation on the subject leads the viewer to believe it was all simply a game, yet the look of mortification on Laure’s face as she hides from Lisa says a great deal more about the situation and her feelings.
Tomboy is a remarkable film. The script is flawless in its execution and the performance by Zoe Heran (Laure/Michael) screams greatness. It is a quiet role, as she does not say a great deal, but spends most of her time watching, analyzing, and adjusting to the role of being a boy. Her time spent with her sister, the adorably precocious Malonn Levana as Jeanne, creates a chemistry that is magical to watch. It is the time spent in front of the mirror that truly shows the range, and skill, the young Zoe possesses. These small moments, that mean such a great deal for the character, pass with great emotion over her face. You can feel the consternation, the turmoil, and the fear she possesses over her secret being revealed.
As a character piece Tomboy hits every mark. As a reflection on gender identity in children, and how one chooses their identity in the year’s to come it is a triumph.
To find theatres where Tomboy is playing go to the film’s official website: Tomboy
(France, 2011, 82 mins)
In French with English subtitles
Directed By: Céline Sciamma
Producer: Benedicte Couvreur
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cinematographer: Crystel Fournier
Editor: Julien Lachery
Cast: Zoé Héran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Matthieu Demy,Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Laine, Ryan Boubekri