Cannily appearing to de-politicize a thorny issue while actually keeping the ever-present conflicts intact, Céline Sciamma’s sophomore feature Tomboy sensibly and sensitively tackles transphobia and the rigidity of social constructs of sexuality through a carefully observed portrait of childhood awkwardness, suggesting that our greatest struggles as individuals may set in during the period of life most commonly quantified as “innocent.”
Young Zoé Héran, who is present for nearly every frame of Tomboy, stars as Laure, an imaginative and inquisitive youngster who, upon moving to a new neighborhood with her parents and younger sister just a couple of weeks shy of a new schoolyear, decides to present herself to her new peers as Michaël, an energetic, outgoing, sports-loving young boy. Michaël blends in seamlessly enough at first, but soon the burgeoning advances of Lisa (Jeanne Disson) and a variety of social contrivances make the gender swap increasingly precarious.
Early in the film, Sciamma is sure to be clear about Laure/Michaël’s precise anatomical properties, a decision which helps the viewer to understand the minute shifts in anxiety that slowly mount as Laure/Michaël tries to blend in both as a young person in general and more specifically as a young man, a process that becomes increasingly difficult as the subtle moments of gender initiation begin to accumulate, from the simple act of “Truth or Dare,” to competitive sports, to the first intimations of sexual contact with the opposite sex. Crucially, we come to understand that Laure/Michaël’s parents tolerate the “tomboy” act, but are not initially cognizant of the depth to which their child is unwittingly crossing social boundaries; when they do eventually catch on, the results are quietly devastating.
The key to making this all work without a didacting flavor is the sense that the chain of events resulting from Laure’s initial decision to become Michaël occurs believably, without an artificial sense of dramatic escalation. For this, credit is due to Sciamma for both the remarkably true performances she elicits from her mostly-preadolescent ensemble as well as the obviously careful attention paid to the impact of each tentative moment of personal revelation; this is storytelling via feather, not sledgehammer. Laure/Michaël’s plight, which one senses will linger for some time, is allowed to hold resonance for anyone who’s felt unsure od their lot in life, regardless of the status of their gender or sexuality – and the fact that this universal appeal is accessed without losing the specificity of Laure/Michaël’s daily life is remarkable indeed.