‘Tomboy’ – it’s a worded loaded with meaning isn’t it? I tested it out with a quick survey of my friends on Facebook and the mixed bag of definitions was predictably forthcoming, including ‘ a little girl who climbs trees’, ‘ a lesbian’ and ‘a woman who dresses in young boys’ fashions and wears trainers, never shoes.’
So it’s significant that French film director Céline Sciamma chose this diversely defined English word as the title for her 2011 coming-of-age movie rather than the French equivalent ‘garçon manqué’ which literally translates as ‘failed boy’.
Her movie tells the story of a kid (Zoé Héran) who has moved to a new neighbourhood with busy father, pregnant mum and little sis (Malonn Levana) and spends the summer getting to know the local youngsters.
Were it not for this film’s suggestive title, one could watch the first section of the movie assuming that this lead character is a pre-pubescent boy. Dressed in a colourful range of shorts and t-shirts with short cropped hair, this kid looks – and behaves – like a tweenie male while little sis skips about in tutus with pretty bows in her long curly locks.
But thanks to the loaded title, the viewer will have their doubts, even when this new kid on the block is befriended by pretty neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson) and tells her that Michael is her name. And of course it’s finally confirmed that she is a girl, called Laure, and the tension builds as we watch this quiet, thoughtful, introverted kid sustaining her deception across the summer knowing – with growing dread of the consequences – that it cannot be maintained forever.
Tomboy is slow-paced, and characterised by frequent moments of silence or long takes of children just being children. By describing it as such I’ve made it sound somewhat contrived and dull, but it’s quite the opposite. Sciamma’s directorial tricks plunge the viewer into Laure’s world so intensely that we become engrossed in her efforts to sustain her illusion – practising her spitting techniques or fashioning a pair of trunks from a bathing costume and a lump of modelling clay. But we know the inevitable exposure of her secret is just round the corner, and soon become as anxious as she is. In fact, after just 65 minutes in this increasingly tense world, it’s amazing how powerful and emotional it feels when the truth finally does come out.
From the manipulative use of camera and silence to suggest Laure’s state of mind to the everyday scenes of children playing and hanging out that are so realistic that you forget it’s actually fiction, Sciamma’s skill as a director is strongly evident throughout. Needless to say, the child actors are brilliantly cast and totally believable. But it is actress Zoé Héran who must claim the credit for the story’s impact. Her subtly expressive face conveys so much more than any dialogue. Don’t expect any answers from this coming of age tale by the way. Sciamma doesn’t politicise the story and doesn’t attempt to explain Laure’s behaviour, letting viewers draw their own conclusions.
And, if the various interpretations of the word ‘Tomboy’ are anything to go by – note that ‘girl with gender dysphoria’ should probably be included here – those conclusions are guaranteed to be wide ranging.
Tomboy is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Peccadillo Pictures on Monday 5th March.