A mother, father and their two children move house one summer, several weeks before the new school year is about to begin. The eldest child introduces himself to the local kids, telling them he’s called Michael, starting friendships and beginning a fledgling adolescent romance with a girl called Lisa.
However 10-year-old Michael is hiding something, as he was born a girl and his parents know him as Laure. Initially Michael manages to keep his secret well, with the local kids accepting him as a boy, but the truth inevitably emerges, especially as they’re all due to attend the same school and Michael will be enrolled by his parents as a girl.
Film doesn’t exactly have a great record of dealing sensitively with issues of gender identity and it’s even rarer for it to find an entertaining, non-confrontational and yet complex way of dealing with kids growing up and feeling their brain doesn’t match their body. Tomboy is a film more about questions and ideas than resolutions. With a 10-year-old lead, played wonderfully by Zoe Heran, it realises that it’s impossible to tell whether Michael/Laure will still want to be a boy when he’s an adult, and it doesn’t try to make grand social statements about gender dysphoria in children.
Instead it takes things in a very personal direction, questioning what it must be like to be a child of one sex who feels like they want to be the other. Michael is too young to be thinking deeply about big questions and just wants to be one of the boys, and so takes the opportunity when it arises, not thinking through the consequences. What really makes the film succeed is how closely it’s in tune with what it’s like to be a child.
It’s a film that truly remembers what it’s like to be a kid, to want to fit in, to try and make what you wish was true a reality, and to retain a sense of innocence. It’s in tune with the way kids accept what they’re told and create their own reality outside the mental baggage of adulthood, as well as accepting the casual cruelty and thoughtlessness adolescents are capable of.
Tomboy really is a wonderful little film, and in not trying to make grand statements and hitting the audience over the head with its liberal credentials, it has great power. Grown-ups may argue over issue of sexuality and gender, but perhaps the most important thing Tomboy does is to strip all that back and get underneath social and moral arguments to an individual struggling to live and find a way through a situation where they don’t feel like everyone else. A lot of kids feel like Michael although statistically most don’t end up having a sex change in adulthood, but that doesn’t lessen the reality of how they feel.
Indeed one of the most interesting things about the film is the way it highlights gender expectations in children, highlighting how much about gender is the conscious or unconscious performance of a role. In Tomboy, even something as simple as spitting on the floor becomes a question of whether there’s something innately masculine about that, or if it’s part of a social performance of ‘male’ things to do. The gender pressures becomes very apparent in Tomboy without ever feeling like you’re being bashed over the head with it. It’s more that the film becomes a tool to highlight the issues of real life that we often overlook.
It also interesting how far society has come that a film dealing with potentially tricky social issues like this has been given a U certificate, which means the BBFC feels the movie is suitable for even the youngest of kids. The fact is, they’re right, even if a lot of parents will bring their own baggage to bear and feel it’s not suitable for their children. However if you do have a child who feels like they don’t fit the way the world seems to want them to be, for whatever reason, I can imagine them finding Tomboy a rewarding experience. The film doesn’t go for easy platitudes and the suggestion everything will eventually be sweetness and roses, but it does a great job of creating a sensitive, real-feeling portrayal of childhood.
The disc also includes a trailer and an interview with director Celine Sciamma. She’s very French and slightly annoying, often seeming slightly smug and on the edge of undermining what’s actually most wonderful about her movie – indeed you half feel the way she handles gender issues are as much luck as judgment – but the interview is interesting nevertheless.
Overall Verdict: A wonderfully involving, personal and moving film, which manages to touch on and explore ideas about gender identity and childhood, without ever feeling the need for melodrama.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac