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‘Tomboy’: Truths And Dares For A 10-Year-Old

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 16, 2011

The beautiful coming-of-age film Tomboy follows a 10-year-old girl who moves to a new town and quietly — for reasons that aren’t quite clear — resolves to make the other kids believe she’s a boy.

As played by Zoe Heran, she completely looks the part: Soft-featured, perhaps, but lean and flat-chested, with a boyish physicality and a Shaun Cassidy mop of light-brown hair that always looks freshly mussed.

Her peers may sense something a little different about “Michael,” but he’s a deft striker on the soccer field. He’s taller and stronger than the other boys, who haven’t hit their growth spurt, and he can spit for distance. No one questions that the new kid is a boy.

Nor do we. Writer-director Celine Sciamma works the scam on the audience, too, coyly keeping Heran’s true identity a secret until 15 minutes in, when Michael gets out of the bath. We’ll come to discover that he’s really Laure — but not before spending time with the character as she lays out her deception and is thrillingly liberated by it.

There’s an absolute innocence to Laure’s motives that strikes at the heart — she’s not only pre-sexual, but not fully conscious of why she’s decided to pose as a boy. It just feels right to her; she gravitates to the role without seriously reflecting on it.

The ruse can only last the summer, if that long, because once school is back in session, the jig will be up. (Then again, 10-year-olds aren’t exactly known for being good at the long con.) Falling into a circle of new friends, Michael frolics happily in their afternoon idylls, returning home as Laure to loving parents and an adorable 6-year-old sister (Malonn Levana), who agrees to play along. When things get dicey, she improvises: Asked to go swimming in the lake, she fashions a Speedo out of a one-piece and fills it out with a modest roll of Play-doh.

Sciamma gets some dramatic tension from the many near-miss moments when Michael is nearly exposed, but she cares more about nurturing the subtle mysteries of her heroine’s behavior. It isn’t common for LGBT films to explore such an early stage of development, before some transformative sexual event sets the course.

So Michael’s relationship with Lisa (Jeanne Dison), a girl whose body and mind have crossed the threshold of puberty, has a heartbreaking tenderness to it. Lisa’s attraction to the new boy is as plain as it is doomed, and “his” response might be best described as curious — curious about her advances, curious about how they make him feel and, most of all, curious about which identity is real. For Laure, being Michael seems part fantasy, part experiment.

Whittling her film down to just 81 minutes, Sciamma gives Tomboy the economy and exquisite proportion of a short story, but it’s the performances that truly astonish. The worst child actors are usually those who seem too precocious and adult for their screen age, and that’s certainly a danger with parts in which they have to show some maturity.

But there’s an absolute naturalism to all the performances here. That’s crucial, especially from Heran, who’s playing a character who does not yet know herself. As Laure, she’s a half-formed gem that’s only just beginning to find its shape. (Recommended) [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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