Céline Sciamma’s new film Tomboy presents a potentially queasy situation with sensitivity and taste. A family moves into an apartment in the suburbs of Paris during the Summer holidays and the two children are given a chance to acclimatise themselves and get to know their surroundings and neighbours. The older child, who is about ten, quickly falls in with the local kids and establishes an identity as Mikhael, an up-for-it lad who’s always willing to join in with the rough and tumble and even embark on a tentative relationship with a girl called Lisa, who lives nearby. It is however not too much of a spoiler given the title of the film to say that Mikhael is revealed by the director fairly early on to actually be a girl called Laure, whose short haircut and masculine choice of clothes strikes a sharp contrast with her conventionally feminine younger sister Jeanne. The fallout from Mikhael’s decision to invent a persona forms the central drama of the piece.
This is a sparely made, reined-in and unflashy film that allows its characters to breathe and unfolds its scenario with the minimum of contrived conflict and histrionics. The young actress Zoé Héran is incredibly effective in the lead role, a very challenging assignment given that she’s on screen for pretty much the whole of the 84 minute running time – she’s rarely required to be overtly demonstrative, but you can see the character watching and thinking and making decisions that are not articulated via dialogue. She’s entirely convincing as a young boy, and you can really buy into the whole neighbourhood being fooled. The film is an excellent depiction of the games and rituals of children – it’s actually all very sweet and innocent, which throws Mikhael’s deception into sharper relief than had there been any sinister or deviant undercurrents. A very well-observed and gracefully assembled film that neatly avoids many possible pitfalls and deserves to be shown widely.