Gwyneth Paltrow sported a fake moustache in Shakespeare in Love and Hilary Swank stuffed a sock down her jeans for Boys Don’t Cry. For Laure, the 10-year-old heroine of Tomboy, it’s a tub of Play-Doh that helps prolong her dream of being one of the boys – at least for the summer.
Laure (Zoé Héran) has recently moved to a new neighbourhood, with her pregnant mum (Sophie Cattani), dad (Mathieu Demy) and younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana). With her short hair, baggy T-shirts and lack of interest in dolls, Laure could pass for a boy. So when one of the local kids Lisa (Jeanne Disson) makes that assumption, Laure is quick to assume the identity of Michael.
Building a compelling drama around what she calls “the story of a lie”, writer/director Céline Sciamma once again shows that she’s well attuned to the trials of growing up and fitting in. Her accomplished debut Water Lilies (2007) explored the shifting loyalties and simmering passions amongst a group of teenage girls on a synchronised swimming team. Though the kids in Tomboy haven’t yet hit puberty, Laure’s deception – of both her family and new friends – is still fraught with potential embarrassment and tension.
Héran is both appealingly vulnerable and enterprising as Laure. Our sympathies are with her from the outset, as she realises that her doting dad will soon have a real son to play with when the baby arrives. The new identity seems more like opportunism than a carefully thought out plan, so it takes a while for Michael to gain confidence with Lisa and her circle of male friends.
At first Laure observes from the sidelines as the boys play football – noting the uninhibited way they spit and strip off their shirts. But those studied rehearsals in front of the bathroom mirror don’t help when it comes to joining her team-mates in other masculine traits – like casually taking a leak in the woods.
Sciamma and cinematographer Crystel Fournier conjure up an idyllic late-summer atmosphere around these kids and their outdoor activities. You can see why Laure wants to escape the confines of their drab apartment. But things get really complicated when six-year-old Jeanne wants to tag along and asks what her big sister plans to do with that roll of Play-Doh she’s furtively moulding. Though Laure’s improvised prosthetic penis (improbably) allows Michael to negotiate an afternoon’s swimming, it’s not long before Jeanne is in on the secret.
Though it was shot in 20 days, Tomboy doesn’t feel like a movie that had to cut corners to accommodate its tiny budget. That’s because of Sciamma’s ability to pick the right young actors and draw unselfconscious performances from them – particularly in the case of the two sisters. Jeanne could have been horribly precocious brat, running around in her tutu and tormenting her butch older sister. But the gorgeous Malonn Lévana gives us a charming little girl, who willingly embraces her own fantasy of having an older brother and protector in Michael.
Sciamma’s script puts the emphasis on believable relationships both in and outside the family, rather than confronting issues of gender identity and budding sexuality head on. Though Laure exposes herself to ridicule by lying to the boys, it’s not their discovery of her true identity that she really has to worry about.
Jeanne Disson’s Lisa has the most to lose by the revelation that the cute boy she’s been kissing is, in fact, a girl. Yet I detected a note of ambiguity early on when she tells Michael “You’re not like the others”, as they stand apart from the boisterous boys. Then there’s the session where she plasters make-up on her new beau and seems very satisfied with the results.
On some level I think Lisa knows exactly what’s going on here. One of the great strengths of Tomboy is that you can read this as a gay story or conclude that Lisa is just lonely and attracted to a new friend who embodies more than a hint of danger.
As in Water Lilies, adults are very much in the background here, but Cattani and Demy are both excellent as the loving but rather distracted parents. Sciamma will no doubt work with bigger names than them in the future and have access to larger budgets. But the beauty and simplicity of her first two movies suggest that she has a real gift for storytelling and an empathy with her young actors that money can’t buy.
(Tomboy is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 5 March. You can read my new Huffington Post review here.)