Celine Sciamma won much notoriety with her debut feature Water Lilies, a female coming of age drama which stood as another example of French cinemas gloriously joyful ability to capture the raw emotional energy which surrounds adolescence.
Tomboy very much carries on from where Water Lilies left off dealing with female insecurities. This time our central protagonist is Laure (Zoe Heran), a ten year old girl with issues of gender confusion. When her family moves to a town just outside Paris, Laure with her indistinguishable dress sense and short hair takes this opportunity to recreate herself not just with a new identity but a whole new sex.
On her first encounter with one of the neighbourhood kids, she announces herself as Mikael in what is just the start of a lie which naturally spirals out of control. It’s not a difficult thing to believe as this glorified tomboy, in her grey vest and unisex hoodie has yet to enter puberty and could easily pass as either an effeminate boy or rugged young girl. Even Lisa, a young insecure girl from the same apartment block is convinced, developing a crush for Mikael which Laure has no qualms in reciprocating.
She goes to great lengths to hide her true sexuality from her new found friends, from roping her younger sister into this game of deceit all the way to running into the forest every time she needs to urinate. As the states escalate she even goes as far as destroying her bathing suit to create a more masculine pair of speedos whilst fashioning a crude makeshift penis out of playdough to finish of the look.
However, as she falls deeper into this new artificial persona cracks start to appear within her fragile facade. Suddenly the realisation dawns that once these gloriously fun filled summer holidays come to an end and the school term commences it’ll become almost impossible for her true identity to be shielded from her new group of friends, some of which, Lisa included, may not take so kindly to such a gross degree of misdirection.
Sciamma’s minimal direction in this insightful exploration of the mystifying awkwardness of childhood allows the performances of her strikingly assured young cast to tell the story with great effect. Zoe Heran and Malonn Levana as the two sisters have the type of naturalistic, immaculately constructed on screen relationship that should by rights be impossible to recreate by those so young. Heran’s appearance as our eponymous tomboy is exceptional, pulling of this unisex role with great aplomb and never seeming uncomfortable with the mature subject matter or complex issues asked of her. Despite the minimal use of dialogue she confidently uses body language to capture the internal conflict of her characters self imposed dilemma whilst simultaneously her strikingly expressive eyes maintain a level of innocent charm that both conveys her confused mental state whilst also driving the narrative forward.
This subtly natural observation of the difficulties which envelop the seemingly all important search for acceptance amongst pre-teens is a lovingly crafted, confident and refreshingly unique film which perfectly encapsulates its subject matter in what can only be described a joyfully pure and lovingly sweet tale which deserves to be seen by a much larger audience.