Short Takes: Tomboy

(Céline Sciamma, France, 2011)

If Céline Sciamma had waited for her cast to age a few more years before making this film it might justly have been labeled “controversial.” But since the female lead is a 10-year-old, the young actress can run around topless playing soccer with a group of boys without causing concern. Laure (the remarkable Zoé Héran) is a recent arrival to the neighborhood, i.e., some sleepy suburb outside Paris. She’s so completely androgynous that she can introduce herself as “Mikael” to her new friends, passing herself off as a boy—an act she takes obvious pleasure in. The narrative then poses a question: for how long can she pull it off? A further complication: how long can she conceal the ruse from her family? And most important: what’s the best way for Mikael to go swimming in public sporting a Speedo?

With Tomboy, Sciamma has retreated, slightly, from the explicitly budding sexuality of her first film, Water Lilies. But there’s still a touch of Eros in the air as winsome Lisa (Jeanne Disson) takes a shine to Mikael, who’s much obliged. The connection between them forms the heart of the film—and provides the poetry for its conclusion.

Since we are dealing with fresh-faced tweens, we are spared the gender histrionics to be found in the likes of The Crying Game or Boys Don’t Cry. Those are indeed bigger films. But sometimes small things can pay off quite nicely.