Tomboy (2011)

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma

One child’s attempt to navigate the spaces of gender and the soft power of self-representation. 

First you’re human, then you’re gendered, and that little scribble on your birth certificate cuts deep grooves that society would see you run out your life in. 

Tomboy is about an early encounter and confrontation of those precepts and it’s told with compassion and humane poise by writer and director Céline Sciamma who had a mainstream breakthrough with last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a queer love (and self-love) story of two women’s unacceptable romance (by contemporary society standards). 

The idea of the institutionalized unacceptable and a person’s fight to disprove it is told with grassroots innocence in Tomboy where Zoé Héran stars as Laure, new kid on the block. Looking like a messy-haired Boticellian angel in red shorts, she’s at that age where kids could be anything before they go through the transformative wringer of sex hormones. Out exploring one day, she comes across a girl, who asks her name. After a slight pause, she answers Mickäel, and suddenly a new life materializes.

Challenges of course present themselves, and there’s a few laughs to be found in Mickäel’s naivete. Like an overeager understudy, he spies on the other boys for traits to mimic. They play sports without their t-shirts on and, most importantly, they spit. The next day, Mickäel joins in, and after some hesitation, ditches the t-shirt and plays on. It works! No one bats an eye, Mickäel’s accepted, even admired for a few good plays. High-fives all around. 

Moments like these are exhilarating, and it’s without the slightest trace  of bombastic soundtrack cues or insistent close-ups. It’s all down to Sciamma showing us the soft power of being recognized as the person one believes oneself to be. 

Like much else that kids do, Mickäel’s gender exploration has that same touch of childhood innocence. It’s not likely Mickäel can eloquently articulate his fascination with boy’s clothes, having short hair, and roughhousing with the other boys, and the pleasure he derives from it. It’s just natural, something from within that gets to emerge, and so despite the nerve-wracking prospect of being found out, it’s full steam ahead in chasing that feeling of other people seeing you the same way you see yourself. 

Watching it, at this nascent stage, there’s a sense of purity to it, knowing that soon this very same act becomes incredibly politicized, and is met with intense scrutiny and refusal by the religious, legal and cultural institutions that organize our life. With the endless callousness, vitriol and ostracisation likely found down this road, the playground on which Mickäel steps out feels every bit a sunlit bubble.

It then becomes a question of who will burst the bubble of this transformative summer, and what will the cost be for Mickäel? What can he expect from his new friends, these children guided by primal jungle logic, should he be outed. What can he expect from his parents, so far unaware of the son they’ve gained? 

The tension of these stakes along with the heart swelling images of a child exploring their identity with success is enough to make Tomboy an arresting watch. It’s unassuming, a quiet film scored by the peals of laughter and cries of children, the buzz of summer-struck cicadas, and the whispered confessions of friends. But like those childhood summers, the sensation transcends time to stay with us.

It’s something to cherish and be protective of. The same can be said of Tomboy. 

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