Film review: Tomboy a refreshing story about children and gender roles

By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives TV & Film critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Tomboy (2011) is a refreshing look at childhood. From the very beginning when we’re introduced to Laure (Zoé Héran), she is smiling and looking around herself with the wind in her hair as the world passes her by. The camera pans and we see she’s standing with her head poking through the sunroof of her father’s (Mathieu Demy) car. They’re on the way to their new home in a Paris suburb.

Laure is the oldest of two girls — she is 10, her sister Jeanne (Melon Lévona) is 6. Their mother, known only as la mère (Sophie Cattani), is very pregnant, and this is a family that is extremely happy. Laure and Jeanne adore each other; Laure patiently explains things to Jeanne and plays every game the two can devise.

Laure, clearly a tomboy, has her hair cropped quite short. She is at that age where gender distinctions are difficult to discern. It will be a year or two before puberty kicks in and a child will morph into a male or female. Laure can easily pass as a little boy. Finding herself in a new place where no one knows her, Laure can be whoever she wants. Her chance comes when she meets a neighbor girl, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), and introduces herself as Mikael. The two hit it off and Lisa invites Mikael to join her and the other kids in the neighborhood in outdoor play.

The kids have no problem accepting that Mikael is a boy. He is a strong athlete, a star when it comes to football. During one game, the kids make their teams go shirts and skins. Mikael is on the skins team and has no hesitation removing his shirt. The boys notice nothing, but the camera goes to Lisa on the sidelines. She’s looking at Mikael with some confusion. She can see the small buds of breasts forming on Mikael’s chest. Lisa has matured early and knows what this looks like. Still, she shrugs it off.

At this point I could clearly see the gender roles being defined. Lisa is very feminine and doesn’t participate in the rough-and-tumble games the boys play. She has stepped into her defined role as the female even though she’s taller than all the boys. Mikael has no such hesitation.

A swimming adventure is planned that puts Mikael in an awkward position. All he has is a girl’s bathing suit, but his friends are pressing him to go. He finally decides to take some scissors to his suit, which leads him to an interesting dilemma.

This is very much a movie about children and perceived gender roles. The most important characters are  children. Most movies I’ve seen that focus on kids have them acting like small adults. The real beauty of this film is these kids act like real kids. They’re a bunch of 10-year-olds having a great time during summer vacation. It’s a shear joy to watch.

Unfortunately, summer turns into fall and that means school will be starting soon. As far as his parents and the school know, Mikael is Laure. Mikael/Laure will soon be facing the consequences of his deception.

I loved this movie. Whether or not Laure is acting out a tomboy fantasy or will go on to transition we’ll never know. The kids are all wonderful and the story was like a time machine for me. It brought me back to a time where life was simple and everyday was a new adventure.

This film is not rated in the U.S., but I would have no hesitation letting my children see it. You should, too, and share the joy!

Streaming on Amazon Instant Video, US $1.99  

In French with subtitles 

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