[This review was originally written as part of our coverage for the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, and is being re-posted to coincide with the film’s New York release on November 16th and Los Angeles release on November 25th.]
It’s hard to portray childhood accurately in a movie. Often, the dialogue is just too smart, and good child actors are hard to come by. Once in a while, though, a film just gets it right, with dialogue that fits perfectly and children who really know what they’re doing. This is the case with Tomboy, and it opens a window into moments of childhood that have long since been forgotten.
Laure (Zoé Héran) has never been particularly feminine, preferring a boy’s appearance and companionship to what her own gender has to offer. When her family moves to an apartment in a new town, she seizes the chance to reinvent herself. She meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson), another girl her age in the apartment complex, and introduces herself as Mikaël. Since they’re only ten, nobody questions this, and Laure spends her summer as Mikaël, growing closer to Lisa and to his new friends. With fall (and school) quickly approaching, however, Laure will have to let the truth out eventually.
Gender and sexuality aren’t topics that can figured out easily, and Tomboy doesn’t attempt to answer all the questions. Laure is just starting to really think about these aspects of herself, and we get to join her on the confusing, awkward, and often funny beginning of her journey. The cinematography is lovely, letting the audience see Laure’s life through younger eyes.
One of the things Tomboy does best is its depiction of children’s relationships. Their dialogue is all perfectly natural and believable, whether they’re having a friendly conversation or sharing an awkward silence. There are many scenes of Laure playing, either with her sister, Jeanne (played by the absolutely adorable Malonn Lévana), or her friends, and I have no doubt in my mind that those children really were playing with each other and enjoying every second of it. The kids all wear their emotions on their sleeves, and watching them deal with conflict brings back the intensely crisp memories of childhood that aren’t often invoked.
The scenes between the family members are a delight to watch. The characters all have a magnificent chemistry, but Laure and Jeanne in particular are absolutely entrancing. Laure is a quiet character, and we mostly get to know her through her interactions with Jeanne. Their playtime is intimate and touching while often being pretty funny at the same time. Interestingly, Jeanne has the most unrealistic dialogue in the film, speaking as if she’s much older than six, and while this really bothers me in most movies, it really works for her. She’s clearly a very smart girl, and her relationship with Laure is all the more powerful because of it.
I did have a few issues with the film. The subtitles were mostly fine, but there were moments where the characters were speaking and nothing was on the screen. This doesn’t seem like an oversight, but a conscious decision that the characters are not saying anything important to the plot at those points. The result is the feeling that the audience is being excluded from a private moment, and given how inviting the scenes of family life are, it is upsetting not to be allowed into some of them.
A more minor complaint was constant passiveness of Laure’s expression. It is ridiculous to expect to always know what she is feeling, given that she clearly isn’t sure of that herself, but you can get the idea of her general mental state most of the time. There are other moments, however, where Laure is clearly feeling something, but her expression is unreadable. The performances are very solid for child actors (as far as I can tell, anyway, since I don’t speak French), but I suppose her lack of expression at times is more due to age than anything else.
A touching movie tackling tough issues while keeping a light tone, Tomboy is well worth a viewing if it comes to a theater near you.