The Trials of a “Tomboy”
by Justin Senkbile
“Tomboy” is the second film from French director Celine Sciamma, and it opens at The Ross as Glenn Close's gender-bending performance in “Albert Nobbs” continues for another week. Which is interesting because both films deal explicitly with people who, for entirely different reasons, maintain precarious secret identities. More specifically, both of these movies are about women pretending to be men.
But “Tomboy” fells like a sort of antidote to the polished charms of “Albert Nobbs”. This is a beautiful, charming film, but with a healthy amount of jagged edges. And part of what makes it hit in such a visceral way probably has a lot to do with the fact that instead of Glenn Close's aging butler Nobbs, “Tomboy” has an arguably more confused heroine in its ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran)
With her short, spiked hair, sharp features and penchant for baggy shorts and tank tops, it's not surprising that the kids in the neighborhood know her better as the new boy in town, Mikael. In fact, she's so completely convincing as a rough-and-tumble little boy that we're not even informed of her true gender until about a third of the way through (if the title of the movie hadn't already tipped you off, that is).
When Laure isn't at the family's new apartment, passing the time with little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), she's out with the neighborhood kids as Mikael. A girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson) takes a liking to this scrawny, athletic boy, and the rest of the gang seems all too happy to have him on their soccer team. Laure does her best to maintain the misunderstanding.
Sciamma wisely eschews waxing psychologically with this kid. We're never drug through any speculations on why Laure wants to be a boy, or what her budding relationship with Lisa is. Her family life (which includes mom and dad, played by Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy) is, if not totally stable, warm and supportive enough. But even if it wasn't, could the sort of situation Laure finds herself in ever be fairly explained in adult terms?
As the distance between childhood and adulthood keeps growing, it seems harder and harder to understand the idea of aimless, joyous “playing”. Sciamma, by a combination of the freedom given to the kids and her own patience behind the camera, conjures up this mysterious spirit flawlessly and with such richness that, for this reviewer, it often felt a bit like rediscovering a home movie. We can almost feel these little brains in motion, inventing as they go along, making a whole world out of a few toys, or a completely fulfilled afternoon out of a dozen splashing water bottles.
Throughout “Tomboy”, we spend a lot of time watching these impressive child actors playing, talking and simply being. These are the richest scenes in an already vibrant film.
“Tomboy” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through February 23rd