‘Tomboy’ tackles the sensitive issue of gender identity among children
by Nancy Ford
Ah, gender, you are a harsh mistress. Or master. It’s so hard to tell these days.
It’s hard to tell with 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran), too. She is not what she seems. She walks, runs, eats, plays, and, in general, moves like a boy. Lanky and angular, all limbs and eyeballs, with pokey, unkempt hair, she delights in doing “boy” things, like mildly tormenting her super-girly younger sister, Jeanne (Malonn Levana).
When Laure’s father’s (Mathieu Demy) job transfer uproots the family to a new town, she sees the opportunity to become part of this new community with an identity that far better suits how Laure sees herself.
Mikael, as Laure begins to refer to herself in her new environs, quickly makes friends with the neighborhood boys. He plays soccer like a champ, and with his shirt off. He spits. His new, more comfortable identity leads him to fashion a penis from clay so he can join his friends swimming. As he inspects the bulge, privately modeling it in front of his closet mirror, we finally see him crack a smile.
As Mikael’s attraction for another schoolmate—Lisa (Jeanne Disson)—grows, so does the urgency of keeping his secret. We wonder if the secret that Mikael whispers into the belly of his very pregnant mother (Sophie Cattani) is that the unborn child has not two older sisters waiting for him on the outside, but a sister and a brother.
Writer/director Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy focuses poetically and unapologetically on one of the most pressing challenges/joys of childhood: pre-pubescent androgeny. Is the tomboyish girl a non-conforming young feminist in training, or a butch lesbian, or a transgender child born into the wrong body? Appropriately, Sciamma’s engaging and thoughtful examination of this sensitive phenomenon has garnered high praise from such prestigious bodies as the Berlin Film Festival and the GLAAD Media Awards.
When Mikael’s secret is eventually revealed, his mother’s humiliating response reminds us of the important work that groups like HATCH and PFLAG do to heal families as they face similar challenges. Tomboy also goes a long, long way toward educating families about the harsh, sometimes tragic consequences of forcing gay and trans children into secrecy, the mildest of which may be our missing out on a really good soccer player.
French with English subtitles. Available June 5 from Wolfe Video (wolfevideo.com).