A lot has happened in the world since Texas governor Greg Abbott launched an attack on trans kids and their parents, but trans rights advocates and allies haven’t forgotten. In last week’s alarming letter that is already being challenged by the ACLU, the Republican leader directed state child welfare agencies to investigate and potentially charge parents of trans children as child abusers, specifically any parent who supported their child in seeking medical interventions like hormone blockers or gender affirming surgery.
The letter came just one week before Abbott faces a challenging primary, and is seen largely as a political move to galvanize conservative voters. Even if this directive ends up carrying no legal weight — and, as these “investigations” have already started, that seems to sadly not be the case — the misinformation about trans kids contained in the widely read letter is a disturbing attack on trans kids that will reverberate the world over.
It’s easy to feel powerless against the forces of hate and discrimination that cook up increasingly creative and insidious roadblocks to medical care for children. It’s in such trying times when art’s most aspirational purpose becomes clearer than ever. A great film may not have the power to lobby for legal protections, but it can inspire, open hearts and minds, and comfort a weary spirit fighting the good fight.
In the growing canon of stories about trans kids, there’s no greater film than “Tomboy,” an early master work from celebrated French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Released in 2011, “Tomboy” established many of the themes that would shape Sciamma’s later films, like the gentle dance of first queer romance that alights “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” or a complex mother-child relationship that inspired her most recent film, “Petite Maman.”
Though Sciamma only became a Cannes regular after “Tomboy,” her sophomore feature is as emotionally resonant and elegantly crafted as her highly decorated later work. And what makes “Tomboy” stand out from Sciamma’s other films is the way in which the filmmaker deftly explores a topic rarely given the film treatment, and certainly not with this same deep nuance and artistry.
The most striking thing about “Tomboy” is the subjectivity of its protagonist, who goes by Michaël for most of the film but whose parents named them Laure. A picture of boyish health, Michaël has short blonde hair and wears brightly colored baggy shorts with white tank tops or grey t-shirts. Both pensive and exuberant, Zoé Héran embodies Michaël with effortless naturalism, easily switching from playful older sibling to introspective observer.
Having arrived in a new town the summer before fourth grade, Michaël introduces himself as a boy to the neighborhood kids. Quietly but confidently, Michaël quickly befriends the rambunctious group of boys and the sweet and attentive Lisa, enjoying a summer of freedom before the realities of school and the fall come crashing down.
Though not entirely absent, the parents remain on the sidelines in Sciamma’s economical construction, acting as both benevolent caregivers and restrictive obstacles. Michaël has a sweet rapport with his father, who teaches him how to drive and holds him like a monkey when he’s feeling down. But dad is absent in the end, and it is Michaël’s mother who makes him confront what she sees as the inflexible laws of society, forcing him into a sinister blue cotton dress.
He finds much more solace from his sweet little sister Jeanne, who idolizes him and keeps his secret in exchange for being able to play with the big kids. Their scenes together are so tender and alive, Sciamma transports the viewer right back to childhood’s lazy days of summer. An expert at spotting young talent (Héran’s real-life friends were even cast as her character’s new pals), Sciamma revels in the cozy chemistry between Michaël and Jeanne, played by adorable curly-haired youngster Malonn Lévana. It’s all in the details in Sciamma’s films — an innocent question about Play-Doh becomes comedy, just as a silly haircut takes on a weighty tenderness.
This finely balanced focus is a hallmark of even Sciamma’s most sweeping films. Though the period costumes and dramatic seaside visuals gave “Portait” a grand scale, Sciamma kept a laser focus on her two main characters, letting their interior lives lead the story. She does the same in “Tomboy,” keeping the viewer entirely inside Michaël’s perspective. It would be impossible to watch this film and not come away with a better understanding of trans and gender non-conforming people, without feeling a significant empathy for the experiences and emotions that have been part of their lives forever.
“Tomboy” takes a nuanced approach to gender non-conformity, never specifically labeling Michaël/Laure throughout the film (Sciamma has, similarly, declined to give a definitive answer on their gender, opting to make a film that could speak to people of all genders and experiences; it worked). Concentrated in one golden summer, “Tomboy” is not concerned with the details of medical transition or gender neutral pronouns. The ending, though ambiguous, when they finally introduce themself as Laure with the same wry smile from Michaël’s scenes, seems to nod at a hard-won self acceptance, at least for now.
Fourth grade, it seems, is for Laure, but Michaël may have a long life ahead of him.
“Tomboy” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.