Dir: Celine Sciamma
Celine Sciamma made a huge impression on me back in 2008, with her outstanding feature debut Water Lilies. Ever since I came out of seeing that movie I've been cautiously anticipating her follow up. When a new director makes something as good as Water Lilies there's always going to be a question mark over their ability to follow it with something equally impressive. Thankfully Tomboy is a confident, convincing answer to that question, and a film that really puts its director on the map.
Like Water Lilies, Tomboy concerns itself with a girl's coming of age. Here Sciamma follows Laure (Zoe Heran), a tomboyish ten year old who, on being asked her name by her new neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson), introduces herself as Mikael. 'Mikael' and Lisa become friends, and even share a first kiss, but Laure struggles to keep her secret from her new friend and from her family.
It's refreshing to see a movie these days which, while its focus is on young people, is truly adult, not in terms of having loads of swearing, sex and violence, but in that it deals with complex and challenging issues of identity, sexuality and the process of growing up in a way that never talks down to the audience or moralises about its characters thoughts, feelings or choices. Sciamma approaches Laure/Mikael's gender identity with sensitivity, other viewers might feel differently, but to me it felt like she never quite made an absolute determination about whether Laure is engaging in youthful experimentation here (tied with the confusion that comes with the first engagement with a sexual identity) or is truly transsexual, and for me the film's openness on this issue is a key strength, as it keeps it from being anything as trite as a cry for acceptance. Tomboy doesn't feel, to me, like a film with a heavy political message, rather its strength is as an intimate and insightful drama about a young person trying to define themselves.
As befits a film so focused on issues of the body and identity, Tomboy often lingers in close ups. Shooting on an adapted digital stills camera, with a very shallow depth of field, Sciamma gets right in to the personal space of her characters, especially that of Laure, her six year old sister Jeanne, and her, entirely male, bar Lisa, new group of friends (cast from Zoe Hernan's own real life group of friends). This brings us right in to the characters and experiences being portrayed here, and makes the film feel at times almost voyeuristic in its intimacy and reality. At the same time it's an intelligently composed and often rather beautiful film. It's a difficult circle that Sciamma squares here; making a film that feels designed and directed, without allowing any of it to ring false.
As in Water Lilies, Sciamma's insight into her characters is spot on, now 30, she still knows how to write kids who seem like kids. Even Laure's intelligent and somewhat wily sister (she exploits Laure's lie so that she can hang out with older kids) is written as a smart six year old, not as the miniature adult we have seen in films like (500) Days of Summer. This carries through into the performances. There is never any sense of acting here, especially from the outstanding Zoe Hernan and Malon Levana. Hernan deals assuredly with a complex role, it would be interesting to discover how Sciamma told her about the character, and how she understood Laure/Mikael's identity but what's really impressive here is the ease with which she shifts gears, going from unselfconciously playing with her little sister and her parents, to being more outwardly controlled when she has to fit in with a group of boys. There is a great ease to the way the actors relate, a very real sense of family created between Hernan, Levana and Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy as their parents, and this also applies to the scenes between the children, be it the innocent first stirrings of attraction between Lisa and Mikael, or the games that the larger group of kids play, there is just a sense here of Sciamma observing children being children.
Tomboy is full of memorable scenes and moments, from the way that Jeanne visibly considers the decision of whether to expose her Sister's lie when Lisa comes looking for Mikael, to the lovely scene when Jeanne cuts her sister's hair. There is also much to admire in the way the relationship between Mikael and Lisa is drawn, the friendship grows very organically, and there is both charm and thematic interest in a scene in which Lisa puts make up on Mikael. Of course the course of the film can not run entirely smooth, and for me Celine Sciamma's sole - minor - stumble, is having the only confrontational scene with the children, after they discover Mikael's true identity, be an almost line by line quote of a notable sequence in the similarly themed Boys Don't Cry. Is it Sciamma's homage? Is it just that there aren't many other ways to deal with that moment, especially considering the age and level of maturity of the characters? It's hard to say, but it works as a scene in and of itself, even if it is over familliar.
There is real emotional punch to Tomboy. Like Water Lilies it deals in real and raw emotion, and though the performances are never overly demonstrative, you feel it all. I may like Water Lilies more, but this film, for me, confirms Celine Sciamma as a major, major talent to watch and is one of the best of 2011 to date. I'd like to see Sciamma branch out a bit more next time, but if she keeps making coming of age movies this insightful, and this well acted, then that's just fine by me.