It’s summer time, and Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have just moved to a new town. Wearing shorts, sneakers, and a pixie cut, the freckle-faced 10-year old girl could easily pass for a boy — and that’s exactly what she does in Celine Sciamma’s charming and pointed coming of age tale, Tomboy, opening this coming weekend at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.
Laure’s family life verges on the idyllic: her groovy dad (Mathieu Demy, son of Jacques) lets her drive the car and allows her to sample his beer, her heavily pregnant mom (Sophie Cattani) seems blissfully calm and comported, and her delightful six-year old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) is a charmer whose girly proclivities more than compensate for her elder sister’s preference for things masculine. Jeanne’s room is pink, Laure’s is blue; Jeanne wears tutus, Laure prefers the aforementioned sportswear.
Making friends in a new neighborhood, however, is one of the classic childhood challenges. When Laure meets neighbor Lisa (Jeanne Disson), she only briefly hesitates before introducing herself as a boy named Mikael. Ice broken, Lisa and Mikael become friends, while the other kids in town unquestioningly accept Laure as a boy.
Though Lisa senses there is something different about her new chum, she can’t quite peg it. A game of truth or dare results in Lisa and Mikael swapping both spit and gum but doesn’t reveal Laure’s secret, though her reluctance to participate in the local lads’ shirtless soccer match strikes one and all as a mite odd.
Determined to keep playing the game, Laure overcomes her fear and strips down for the next five-a-side, during which she proves herself a skilled player. As the summer passes, though, the illusion becomes harder to maintain: a swimming party forces Laure to craft a Play-doh penis for her swim trunks (it holds up remarkably well), but the approaching school year poses an even bigger challenge. Why, Lisa wants to know, is there no boy named Mikael on the 4th grade class roster?
Jeanne, meanwhile, is an un-indicted co-conspirator in Laure’s fantasy. When Lisa comes to the door looking for Mikael, Jeanne, evincing no surprise whatsoever, declares he’s not at home. Apparently, the game is not a new one for the worldly-wise six-year old, who does her bit by cutting her sister’s hair in an appropriately boyish style. And so the illusion is maintained — until, at least, the film’s final reel.
This is a lovely, low-key film that could never, ever have been made in America — and I’m rather surprised that the MPAA didn’t slap an NC-17 rating on it (it seems to have been released unrated). Though wholesome and intelligent family entertainment, Tomboy is filled with the sort of casual nudity that is now considered verboten. Besides Laure’s frequent topless scenes, she also takes a bath with her sister and inspects her body for signs of budding femininity.
It’s as if those crazy French people think there’s nothing to be ashamed about, but we know better: this is the kind of perverse behavior normal youngsters never engage in, and is certainly unsuitable material for a movie. Won’t someone please think of the children?
Though issues of sexuality and gender identity are certainly front and center in Tomboy, at the film’s heart lies the close and loving relationship between Jeanne and Laure. Despite their differences, the siblings accept each other unquestioningly and their scenes together are simply wonderful. If you can overcome your shock at seeing a topless ten-year old, you’ll find this a richly rewarding and heart-warming experience.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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