An identity in question
By John DeFore
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
As slender as its protagonist, with a disdain for extraneous plot mechanics befitting its lazy-summer setting, Celine Sciamma's French import "Tomboy" offers dramatically loaded situations but sees no reason to exploit them.
Its title, and its advertisements, inform us that the star is a girl, but viewers would otherwise have no idea at first. If the word "tomboy" conjures visions of pigtailed scamps bent on proving girls can do anything boys can, the character we know as Mikael prefers to avoid that question entirely: Though her parents, who have just relocated the family, don't know, Mikael (whose given name is Laure) introduces herself to new neighbors as a boy and spends solitary hours in front of a mirror trying to perfect the illusion.
If the character is vigilant about outward appearance, preteen actress Zoe Heran works from the inside out - letting her shoulders droop in a way girls don't, projecting new-boy wariness in which curious eyes are balanced by a nearly scowling mouth. Heran is so effective, despite not seeming to work at it, that even after the credits roll one wants to refer to the character as "him."
The movie itself doesn't share Mikael's need to appear aloof. Sciamma gives her heroine a warm, supportive home where Mom is days away from delivering a new baby (this one actually is a boy) and little sister Jeanne loves her older sibling so sweetly (she's the closest thing here to a Hollywood cutie pie) that she'll play along with the "Mikael" charade just so she's allowed to be nearby.
Sciamma pictures the story in dappled sunlight and wooded fields that, though not far from dull apartment blocks, have an out-of-time seductiveness.
Despite the movie's lack of a forward-pushing narrative, its individual sequences are far from inert. Viewers may grit their teeth sympathetically when, say, a swimsuit-clad Mikael gets in a wrestling match vigorous enough to threaten exposure. They certainly will worry for Lisa, the quiet girl who befriends Mikael and, sensing something different about him, develops a crush.
Every advance Lisa makes is a step toward her first heartbreak and also a reminder that Laure has started something that can only end badly, and soon. "Tomboy" doesn't shy from the inevitable, but it allows the truth to emerge without inflated confrontations and tearful hysterics. The most awkward conversations, in fact, occur off-screen.
"Tomboy" feels no need to investigate why Laure does what she does and certainly doesn't want to get bogged down watching as adults around her try to decide what to think.
Contains one brief instance of non-sexual nudity.