This delightful French film about Laure (Héran), a ten year-old girl who is so seemingly uncomfortable with being a girl that when she and her family move into a new neighbourhood, she pretends to be a boy called Mikael in front of her new friends. Luckily, Laure is so androgynous in appearance that she manages to pull it off. However, what with the summer holidays drawing to a close and school starting in a matter of weeks, Laure can’t keep her secret forever.
This is writer/director Céline Sciamma’s second feature film, after Water Lilies (2007). Tomboy was written in three weeks, and after a further three weeks of casting, it was shot in just twenty days. When this exceptionally short time frame is taken into consideration, the remarkable quality of this film cannot be denied. Shot entirely on location in Laure’s apartment block and out in the nearby woods where the local children entertain themselves by playing games of football or swimming in the lake, the film has an incredibly intimate and nostalgic feel, intensified by DoP Crystel Fournier’s stunning cinematography. Everything is sun-filled and warm, colourful and bright; beautiful shots of sunlight filtering through the lush green leaves of the trees overhead perfectly evoke a time that surely everyone can identify with – the long, hot summer holidays of your childhood, when all you had to worry about was what adventures you were going to have the next day, but with the fun always being overshadowed by the prospect of having to return to school.
However, in Tomboy, the threat of school approaching takes on an entirely different nature for Laure. She knows that it signifies the end of her lie; her new friends, including Lisa (Disson) will soon learn that she is in fact a girl. What may sound like a cruel trick to play on your friends is not treated that way by Sciamma; it’s open to interpretation just why Laure pretends to be a boy, but it’s certainly not to be malicious. She just wants to fit in, and since she clearly feels more comfortable doing boyish things than wearing dresses and make-up, Sciamma cleverly and subtly raises questions of gender roles, and causes us to question whether it is actually necessary to have such rigid boundaries for children so young.
Indeed, Sciamma’s film is full of subtle moments and gestures. Héran’s tall, skinny frame and short hair make her look so androgynous that, despite our initial suspicions, we still need visual confirmation that Laure is in fact female, and this comes in the form of a bath-time scene between her and her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana). There are various heartbreaking moments where Laure struggles to keep up the act, such as when she has to rush into the woods to urinate as she can’t stand next to the other boys, and when she must create something to fill the crotch of the swimming trunks she has cut out of her swimming costume. Even building up the courage to take off her t-shirt when playing football with her friends is tinged with sadness, but there is also a palpable sense of anxiety in these scenes, as both the audience and Laure know that it is not a case of if she is found out, but when, and Sciamma subtly builds tension in every scene.
The most impressive aspect of Tomboy is without question the quality of the performances from the children. Zoé Héran is a revelation as Laure – the subtleties of her facial expressions and body language are sublime throughout. Her younger sister Jeanne, played by the adorable Malonn Lévana, is one of the most charming young characters I have ever seen on screen. A bold statement to make, but her smile and laugh are so infectious that it is impossible not to be filled with utter joy whenever she is on screen. Sciamma is extremely skilled at teasing out amazingly natural performances from her child actors, especially Héran and Lévana, whose relationship is utterly believable. Indeed, all of the performances, even down to Laure and Jeanne’s parents (Cattani and Demy) are so convincing that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sciamma had secretly filmed a real family and a real group of young friends.
On the whole, Tomboy is a wonderful, subtly thought-provoking film about childhood, gender and friendship that is perfectly cast, beautifully visualised and a complete joy to watch. Nevertheless, it is also a film unlikely to ever receive the recognition it deserves.
DVD extras include the trailer and a very good seventeen-minute behind the scenes featurette, in which director Sciamma goes into detail about the writing and casting processes. We also get to see for ourselves just how well Sciamma worked with her child actors, and she describes how she wasn’t aiming for improvisation, but a natural quality to already scripted moments. The featurette gives an excellent insight into how directors manage to coax out such wonderful performances from young children, and serves as a perfect accompaniment to the film.
Tomboy is out on DVD and Blu-ray now – order your copy here.