Tomboy: Film Review

Coming-of-age tale tackles gender confusion with humor and heart.  

Promising French auteur Celine Sciamma follows up her noteworthy debut, "Water Lilies," with another sharply observed story of youths grappling with awkward bodies and budding hormones in the lighthearted preteen drama "Tomboy."

PARIS -- Promising French auteur Celine Sciamma follows up her noteworthy debut, Water Lilies, with another sharply observed story of youths grappling with awkward bodies and budding hormones in the lighthearted pre-teen drama, Tomboy. Since playing in Berlin’s Panorama and Generation sections (where it scooped up the Teddy Award Jury Prize), the film has sold in several territories with Stateside rights picked up by new indie distributor Rocket Releasing. It opens in France mid-April.

Even more pared down in its narrative than Sciamma’s 2007 debut, the pitch in Tomboyis as straightforward as its title: 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran) moves with her parents (Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demi) and little sister (Malonn Levana) to a new apartment in the lush Marne valley nearby Paris. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and with closely cropped blond hair, she could easily pass for a boy. And she does just that when running into a neighbor her age, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who introduces Laure – now known as Michael – to a gang of roughhousing, soccer-loving local kids.

With the summer dwindling away and school looming on the horizon, Laure can only keep up the ruse for so long, especially in the face of Lisa’s obvious puppy love interest for her masculine alter-ego. When she’s obliged to have her sister join in on the conspiracy, things take a turn for the tragic-comic worse, and the facts of life force Laure/Michael to choose between her two identities.

Rather than milking the scenario for easy sentiments or psychological babble, Sciamma adapts a very French-style approach, depicting Laure’s foibles with a tender and realistic eye reminiscent of such landmark adolescent movies as Francois Truffaut’sThe 400 Blowsand Jean Eustache’sMes Petites amoureuses. The latter seems to have had a particular influence on the writer-director’s detached yet compassionate handling of her cast, who seem forever in their element as they engage in water fights, play truth or dare or partake in somewhat crueler behavior later on.

Shot on the Canon EOS 7D by talented d.p. Crystel Fournier (The Moon Child), the film’s imagery is colorfully minimal, with the action set almost entirely in Laure’s apartment, or in the parks and gardens surrounding the housing complex. If it weren’t for a laptop computer viewed briefly in one scene, the warm-toned visuals and monotone backdrops could easily place the film in the ‘60’s or ‘70’s, where its earnest vision of sexual innocence – and bewilderment – would be most welcome.

Opens: In France (April 20)
Production companies: Hold Up Films, Lilies Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Zoe Heran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy
Director-screenwriter: Celine Sciamma
Producer: Benedicte Couvreur
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designer: Thomas Grezaud
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 82 minutes

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