It’s hard to know for certain whether some coming of age stories accomplish what they set out to do, as genres within the genre itself tend to blur the messages within. Generally, any film involving a child in new situations could be classified as such. However, Tomboy, the latest from director Céline Sciamma, explores youth and adjustment not only through a different lens but at a wholly different angle. While the film is tied together with themes that all viewers can relate to, it also leaves room to be uncomfortable, vulnerable – and therefore has more than the standard measure of empathy towards its subjects.
Ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) moves to a new neighborhood in the summer with her father (Mathieu Demy), mother (Sophie Cattani), and six-year-old sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana). A new life awaits Laure, not only in the form of a new neighborhood, but in the form of a new brother or sister very soon to be born. An understatement at best, it is a time for change and adaptation. Still, she is very close with her family, and vice versa – the film opens up with Laure sitting on her father’s lap while in the car, with him teaching her how to drive. She is often the “model” for her little sister’s portraits. She climbs into bed with her mother, and so on. She is their little girl, and yet she prefers shorts and sneakers, and a short hair cut. Not only that but her features themselves, while not decidedly male, are very neutral. Laure is a mild-mannered child with a charming spirit about her; naturally, when she ventures out to make friends in her neighborhood, she is readily accepted. The only issue is that she is not accepted as Laure, but as Michaël. This quickly becomes somewhat of a problem, as she embarks upon a double life – to the neighborhood kids, as Michaël the sportsman, the boy, the eventual boyfriend; to her family, as Laure the daughter, the sister, the girl.
Tomboy is remarkable in the way it approaches what is considered to be general social commentary on gender in the Western world. Questions on what makes a boy a boy and what makes a girl a girl are addressed in part without really saying a word. The whole showing-without-telling way of storytelling is an effective measure in the film, as it leaves the viewer room to pause and ponder, as well as showcase the fine talent within the young cast. In addition, it addresses the importance placed on friendships, love relationships, family relationships, as well as the relationship with self. For all intents and purposes, Laure does look like a boy, but only according to what society dictates is ‘boy-ish’. To her family, she’s a girl; to everyone else, unless she herself states otherwise, she’s a boy. The point in which she chooses the name Michaël and takes on the characteristics of a boy suggests the budding relationship with herself, which is complicated enough as life progresses (something all can relate to). She ponders running around without a shirt on, and takes the time to figure out how to wear tight swim shorts without revealing her given sex. However, only by her being in too deep as Michaël is she faced with two realities colliding, and perhaps encroaching on this impromptu discovery of self.
Outside of the larger gender discussion, Tomboy is very well-told – as a chapter within chapters of a book. In this sense it remains as true to life as possible – build-ups, crescendos, stable periods and all. The film is also punctuated with some endearing foundational aspects and moments – Laure’s relationship with her sister Jeanne is possibly the most endearing of the entire film, and the dance scene between Lisa and Laure/Michaël to Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s uber pop-esque track “Always” will remain etched in the memory bank for a while.
Despite its being slightly haunting beyond the general childhood memory, Tomboy is very powerful in that it is a very warm, very human story that will likely incite the contemporary adult viewer to question ideas, categories and constraints that shape the values that compose one’s social consciousness.