Los Angeles Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | July 11, 2011
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy
Upon returning from a summer retreat, Laure (Zoé Héran) joins her parents (Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy) and six-year-old sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), at their new home. The new neighborhood means many things to Laure, including new friends, a new school, and a new identity.
From first glance, Laure’s gender is inconclusive. With her prepubescent, 10-year-old frame and short haircut, Laure can easily pass for a boy. From what we can gather, Laure has been a tomboy for quite a while. Laure prefers to dress like a boy and play with boys and her parents seem too distracted to notice — Laure’s father is away at work for most of the film and her mother is practically bedridden by pregnancy.
Laure’s first friend in her new neighborhood is a girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson). Laure introduces herself to Lisa as a boy — Mikael — totally naive to the fact that this charade cannot last forever. Lisa in turn introduces Mikael to the local kids and Mikael instantly blends right in with the other boys. We watch how Mikael learns by observing the other boys, co-opting their gender by mimicry. Soon, Mikael is playing soccer with her shirt off, getting into fisticuffs with other boys and kissing a girl. Mikael’s greatest hurdle is when she is invited to go swimming with the other kids because her makeshift pink swimsuit accentuates the fact that she does not have a penis. Luckily that is something a little green modeling clay can fix (thus giving King Missile’s “Detachable Penis” an entirely new meaning). As school registration approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that Laure will not be able to maintain the facade of Mikael for much longer. The question remains: How badly is this going to end for Laure?
With Tomboy, writer-director Céline Sciamma delves much deeper into the taboo (at least on this side of the Atlantic) theme of childhood sexuality that she discussed all-so-eloquently in her 2007 feature-length debut, Water Lilies. Laure is five years younger than Water Lilies’ Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adèle Haenel); thus Laure is also significantly more innocent. The root of Laure’s deception is not about sexual attraction to girls — though she does kiss a girl — it is about wanting to play like a boy.
Tomboy thoughtfully discusses the prevailing pressure from society to conform to specific gender stereotypes — even in acting like a boy, Laure abides by society’s predetermined definition of what a boy is. What is wrong with a 10-year old girl wanting to dress like a boy and play with boys? Why is that considered weird or abnormal? Is genitalia really the sole defining criteria for gender?