This writer distinctly remembers an old, probably two minute short making its rounds on Nickelodeon in between programs circa 1990. In it, a young lass yearns to play baseball with the neighborhood boys but is turned down because of her gender. So with a sweatshirt, baseball cap, and jeans, she heads to the next game to show them a thing or two as a boy. When the jig is up and she reveals her true identity, her teammates learn an important lesson. It was an optimistic short that didn’t really have much issue with the girl’s questionable decision to be a boy for a day just to play a sport. Maybe it’s not realistic or necessarily deep but it’s aimed at a very impressionable audience, and given the constraints they had to work with, the directors had to make their point and get out before “Mr. Wizard’s World” came on.
Independent films don’t have to deal with these restrictions nor do they have to simplify for children’s network television. Céline Sciamma‘s new film “Tomboy” finds itself tackling a similar subject with some variations — simply put, her protagonist is more comfortable as a boy — but is able to come at things with subtlety and understanding. Unfortunately they practically share the same tidy, almost adorable conclusion that is passable for kiddy TV but disappointing in something so consistently strong.
Laure (Zoé Heran) finds herself in a tough spot when her family moves to a new suburban neighborhood. Her father (Mathieu Demy) works, her mother (Sophie Cattani) is pregnant, and little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) is still a bit too young to really keep up with the ten year old. However, this shy hoyden finds a bit of luck when she runs into Lisa (Jeanne Disson), a friendly girl her age that ultimately absorbs Laure into her clique. There’s just one problem — judging by Laure’s clothing, haircut, and demeanor, the new playmate assumes she is a boy and states so in a nonchalant exchange. Without a hiccup, Laure introduces herself as Mikael and the two run off to join the group. As the summer comes to a close and our tomboy finds more and more obstacles coming her way (such as swimming, peeing in the woods, etc.), her final problem arrives when classroom assignments are released and buddy “Mikael” is nowhere to be found. The kid has got herself into quite the mess, and it’s not so simple to come clean and leave it at that. Heran’s character feels more comfortable as this male personality, playing with the boys and even managing to romance Lisa into a smooch. That aside, how will the other children react to the truth? Violence and ridicule could be a likely response.
Kudos to Sciamma’s refusal to indulge in the same old as various instances avoid overfamiliar outcomes or beginnings in favor of different, more understated moments that don’t spoon-feed the audience. They’re much more powerful that way, such as when Laure/Mikael is playing soccer with the gang and copies a sweaty chum by also removing her shirt: the scene is well played without any sort of emotional pushing-in, dialogue, or musical accompaniment. And though she’s at her strongest at times without chatter, she knows how to use it, such as when Jeanne discovers “Mikael” and the subsequent conversation between siblings suggests a deeper history of this persona. The filmmaker has just the right touch with these elements, dwelling just enough to make an impact. It also has some of the best child acting this year next to “The Tree of Life” (say what you will about the film, but the kids were great). The director captures the raw, little idiosyncracies that embody kids of that age and uses them to her advantage, crafting very real, innocent moments and, in turn, nailing the essence of childhood right on the head.
She does well with the simple plot up until the point when she has to wrap things up. It’s quite obvious that Laure cannot continue being Mikael without someone finding out, but the way characters come to terms with this discovery is a bit too easy and Sciamma seems to sweep all of the intricacies of Laure’s alter-ego (such as the fact that she has feelings for another female) under the rug. Shouldn’t something be said about these issues? Characters swiftly deal with the problem and everyone seems to get over it, and Laure seems to be content with her mother’s suggestion that she wear boy clothes but at least admit to being a girl. It’s not that the ending can’t be positive but we wish greater weight and acknowledgement had be given to the nuanced issues developed through much of the film. As it stands, “Tomboy” reaches a far too tidy conclusion.
Regardless, the film is still a great celebration of the excitement and freedom of childhood, that also explores the confusion of growing up and terror of being and finding out who you are. With insight and focus, Sciamma’s sophomore effort largely captures the complexity of adolescence. [B]