This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 27th November 2011
This small miracle of a film is proof you don’t really need more than 20 days and half a million euros to produce an extraordinarily fine piece of cinema. Given this is only the second feature by director/writer Celine Sciamma, it’s little wonder Tomboy has been celebrated with awards at festivals from Berlin to Philadelphia.
The subtly played but undeniably tense action takes place in a balmy suburban summer, as Laure and her younger sister Jeanne move into a new neighbourhood. Keen to make friends and be accepted, and particularly to get the chance to play her beloved football, the tomboyish Laure introduces herself as Michael – an easy lie to live out, given her cropped hair and androgynous pre-teen frame. The children are welcoming and unquestioning of their newest member, including Lisa, who takes a shine to the shy, chivalrous Michael.
When you consider that one simple, juvenile lie can form the basis for enormous depth, pain and drama, you may wonder why typical Hollywood blockbusters feel the need to keep bombarding us with explosions and aliens and planets in distress. The French obviously know better. Laure paves the way for her own predicament – namely, what to do about her pretence once school starts – with almost a slip of the tongue. Once said, she can’t back out, and one senses she doesn’t want to. It takes an incredible young actor to represent such a character and newcomer Zoe Heran is indeed extraordinary; incredibly natural as a boy, whether nonchalantly removing her T-shirt to play soccer with the lads, or mutely accepting Lisa’s affections. As her six-year-old sister, Jeanne, the preternaturally mature Malonn Levana is equally affecting, providing Laure with sisterly emotional support that is endlessly touching.
Sciamma’s accomplishment here is in writing the script in three weeks, casting relative newcomers (most neighbourhood kids are non-actors who are actress Heran’s own friends) and shooting it quickly. She shows us a childhood we can all relate to, with naturalistic scenes of insecurity, joy, teasing, sexual curiosity, fighting and extreme loyalty. Tomboy is a wonderful example of film-making at its most personal and the folly of youth at its most devastating.