Rating: (4 out of 5) [Critic’s Pick!] Sunday, 10/16/2011, 5:30 PM Feature presentation, $12 at Navy Memorial Heritage Center French with English subtitles
CÉLINE SCIAMMA’S UNASSUMING, tender drama revolves around Laure (Zoé Héran), a pre-teen girl who refuses to shed her tomboyish ways. With her short hair, steel-eyed gaze, and slight swagger, it’s no surprise that when her family moves to a new apartment complex, Laure is instantly mistaken by the neighborhood kids as “the new boy.” She does nothing to dissuade her playmates, passing herself off as Michael. Since she’s not yet developed breasts, going shirtless isn’t really an issue in a game of “shirts vs. skins,” but swimming — ah, well that presents an altogether different situation. Nothing a carefully positioned lump of Play-Doh can’t solve.
Michael draws the attention (and ultimately the affections) of Lisa (Jeanne Disson). It’s all very innocent, yet the implications are enormous — and the consequences, potentially traumatizing. Despite its gentle rhythm, Tomboy edges deliberately toward a climax that you know will be painful for all involved. It’s not a question of whether Laure’s gender will be revealed, it’s a question of when and how. Credit goes to Sciamma for finding a way to create a denouement that is honest and intense, fully uncontrived, one that leaves us stunned and slack-jawed.
Héran is astonishing as Laure/Michael; her performance is subtle, studied, letter-perfect. She’s matched by Malonn Levana as Jeanne, Laure’s 5-year-old sister. A natural beauty, Levana is a joyous burst of radiance, lighting up the screen like a supernova. It’s like watching a French model in an embryonic stage.
Tomboy traverses that complicated, awkward terrain of gender identity with a quiet, determined resolve. There are no sledgehammers here, no artifice. It’s all organic, and Sciamma’s only mission is to tell a story that is, in many respects, universal to all those who feel as though their being, their soul has been placed into the wrong receptacle.
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