In Tomboy, a 10-year-old girl named Laure (Zoé Héran) tells the kids in her new town that her name is Mikael. Her ruse is enabled by her being at that age when her gender identity could go either way. She’s chosen cropped hair and slightly boyish attire; indeed, there’s no reason to suspect she’s not a young boy until the words “Tomboy” hit the screen. Pretty soon she’s playing soccer with the boys and engaging in larval mating rituals with Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), all while her cartoonish laidback liberal parents remain as oblivious of her fake identity as her new friends are of her real one.
Director Céline Sciamma is one of the very few filmmakers indeed making films on the budding sexuality of the very young, a subject most avoid for fear of being compared to Polanski. Water Lillies (2007) portrayed the sex lives of 15-year-old girls with a heavy dollop of homoeroticism. In Tomboy, where the subjects are younger still, Sciamma isn’t afraid to include nudity and homosexuality. While this is the kind of film that would earn a seal of approval from George Michael Bluth for its “complex European eroticism,” Sciamma’s approach is purely anthropological, not sexual. Her work with her kid actors is unfailingly gentle, resulting in a verisimilitude that can’t be faked.
If only Tomboy were about anything beyond its own supposed subtlety. Sciamma is the kind of filmmaker who’s ostentatious about not being ostentatious. Of course there’s no musical score, as a musical score would be manipulative. But not having a score is, at this point, is a cliche; even The Kid With a Bike, the latest from the Dardennes Brothers—the masters of this brand of realist cinema—features a few non-diegetic blasts of Beethoven. For Tomboy, it’s gradually revealed, the subtlety serves as a distraction from a lack of content and perspective. Sciamma has the chance to explore how sexuality first develops in human beings, but instead settles for what’s ultimately a thin melodrama. If there’s any doubt that Tomboy is only marginally deeper than the 1985 T&A programmer also named Tomboy, note the utter fraudulence of the final two seconds.