Childhood is such a tricky time in one’s life. You are bombarded with feelings you don’t wholly understand and these feelings can grow into something that haunts you as an adult. What should otherwise be a carefree and joyous time in one’s life can become an internalized nightmare for those unable or unwilling to explore their own emotional complexities; and what child is up for that task? I am still grappling with elements of my own childhood, moments in time that confuse me still, and I’m nearly thirty years of age. While watching a film like ‘Tomboy’ I’m literally reduced to tears because I see so much of me and so much of my own confused childhood that I can only wish for something easier for my own children.
And yet, does easy really sculpt an adult?
‘Tomboy’ tells the story of ten-year-old Laure. Laure, while female, choses to identify as a male. She dresses like a boy, walks like a boy, acts like a boy. She even sits like a boy. Because of this, she is mistaken by a neighbor girl named Lisa FOR a boy. Instead of correcting her, Laure tells her that her name is Mikael and from that moment forward she does everything she can to keep up the façade, not for one second assuming the consequence of being found out once school starts. Instead, she spends her summer days playing ball with the neighborhood boys and forming a crush (that is reciprocated) on Lisa. The two bond rather quickly, but there is just no avoiding the inevitable.
I’m yelling SPOILERS because I honestly cannot review this without some.
With painstaking subtlety and beauty, Celine Sciamma tackles a very delicate yet weighty subject and delivers one of the finest films of this new decade. Some have criticized the way in which the interaction with Laure’s parents is depicted and yet it truly helps build what is so important to the nature of this film, and that is the child’s perspective. This is a story told through the eyes of a child. Even something as serious as gender confusion is depicted in a way that is most accessible to the child. Laure doesn’t ever come off as ashamed but instead she is readily comfortable in her own skin. Even at home, despite refusing to admit to her parents who she wants to be, she doesn’t shy away from being herself. Her parents know she identifies with the ‘male role’ and they accept her for that. When Laure’s mother finds out what she is doing though, the way she is lying to the neighborhood kids, she is upset. This scene in particular I found brilliantly depicted because it captures all the fear that Laure had and the reason she was so afraid for her parents to really ‘know’ and yet it also captured the panic in the mother’s eyes as she tried desperately to understand a way to fix it. She loves her daughter but she is afraid for her future, and this is shown beautifully without taking too much away from the film’s primary focus; Laure.
I also wanted to mention the film’s conclusion and the smile that has been mentioned. I’ve read reviews that suggest that it took away from the film and yet I found it the perfect end point because it did two very important things. First, it kept in tone with the nature of the film. Children, unlike adults, very easily forgive, forget, accept and move on. It isn’t until you reach puberty and you start to become a terrible person do you forget how to do that (I say that with intended sarcasm). So, in keeping with the idea of depicting such a serious subject through the eyes of a child, it is only fitting that Lisa forgive Laure her lie an accept her for who she is. In asking for her name, Lisa is essentially telling Laure that she doesn’t have to hide anymore. Sure, Laure may want to be a boy and identify and or be referred to in that context, but it is quite unrealistic to expect that be the case entirely at such a young age. She is getting ready to attend school and it will be nearly impossible for her to keep up such a lie. Then there is the smile, which closes out the film. For me, this was such a beautiful way to show that Laure too understands that her life and her decision, while obviously difficult, is going to be okay. She knows that life moves on and she can get through this. This does not denote that she knows she has to change and that the phase (as some have called it) is going to be over now that she’s been found out. Instead, this denotes the very idea that Laure understands she doesn’t have to hide and that her life may not be as difficult as she imagined it would be.
The entire cast is fantastic, but really this film would have been nothing without Celine Sciamma’s delicate direction and Zoe Heran’s powerful performance. The way that Heran captures the very essence of this young girl/boy is flawless and the way she builds such a tremendous atmosphere around her (the jovialness and even the emotional fear) is just unforgettable.
I will mention that this does contain underage nudity and it was a scene that took me back. I saw it coming, as a way to ‘reveal’ the truth about Laure, and so I kind of prepared myself for it a few seconds before it actually happened, but it was a scene that I felt could really shake some viewers. While not perverted or pornographic in any way, being the father of two young girls I found it slightly unnecessary despite being a powerful moment in the film.
Some have likened this to ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. I resoundingly agree with that assessment. The film is every bit as powerful as Kimberly Peirce’s debut without mimicking (although the ‘show us’ scene towards the end was obviously taken from that film) and thus creating its own entity.
This is a film that will be talk and discussed and debated for YEARS to come. I just hope that more people see it.