Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Like writer/director Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies, her sophomore feature is a sensitively observed, impressionistic tale of an inarticulate adolescent girl picking her way through the gender identity/sexuality maze.

The title is a bit of a red herring, though. This isn't just a film about rejecting the trappings and physical limitations of traditional girlhood for an elongated period of freedom; it's about male impersonation and a young girl's awkward first steps toward embracing her own lesbianism.

Laure (Zoé Heran) is a gawkily graceful young beauty whose family has just moved for the umpteenth time. When her neighbor Lisa (a raw-boned Jeanne Disson) introduces herself, Laure decides on the spur of the moment to pass as a boy. The longer the deception works, the more confident "Mikael" becomes, moving to the center of the restless pack of early-adolescent boys that surrounds Lisa.

The movie's strength is its nuanced emotional authenticity and its sense of realism, so its false notes matter even though there are only a few. Tomboy gives up a little of its hard-won credibility when Laure's six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) reacts to the news of her sister's secret life with the aplomb of a savvy adult, or when Laure wears the makeup Lisa put on Mikael to "play at being girls" all the way home—presumably so we can see her mother's reaction to seeing her butch daughter as a femme, though surely Laure would have scrubbed the stuff off before she left Lisa's place.

But for every scene that rings false, there are a dozen that feel like little slices of childhood served fresh from Sciamma's memory or imagination. Playing out most of the action not in words but through games like Truth or Dare, 20 Questions, or soccer, Sciamma and Heran unearth a welter of inchoate emotions beneath Mikael's macho deadpan.

After studying the boys from the sidelines of their soccer game, Laure sheds her girlish self-consciousness and discovers the joy of expanding all the way into her rangy, muscular physique to play hard with the boys. At the same time, fear of discovery and the awareness of her double life makes her a bit diffident as Mikael, especially in her courtship of Lisa. Going with the flow but afraid to initiate anything, she's painfully tentative, but the slow smile that blooms after Lisa takes the lead and kisses her is touchingly eloquent.

Tomboy is a big step forward for Sciamma, whose underdeveloped first feature was all mise-en-scene. This one is still more of a mood piece than a clearly plotted story, but the mood it creates lingers long after the movie has ended.

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