"Tomboy" Only Scratches the Surface of Early Sexuality

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Dec. 9, 2011

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Grade: C+

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.

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1. Jenji said... on Dec 11, 2011 at 02:04PM

“I think it's a tragic shame that society brands "the budding sexuality of the very young" as a moral issue, rather than a normal human coming-of-age event. Guess what folks – we become sexual beings long before the magical, arbitrary line in the sand of age 18. And society ignores this fact at the peril of the very people (yes children are people too) it imagines it is protecting.”

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2. Elliot Ruggles said... on Dec 21, 2011 at 10:20AM

“This review I think misses the point of the film entirely. As a trans person, I was deeply moved by the intimate portrayal of the gender identity development of the main character. In our modern society, that so often conflates gender and sexuality, I'm not surprised that the reviewer did not see depth in the sexual development of the character, because that was not the focus. I have never seen a movie that shows the intimate life of a transmasculine subject (yes, I know that's not how they might identify) in such a deep way, especially at such a young age. I think this film sheds light on many moments that trans (and other gender non-conforming folks) have, usually alone and sometimes never speak about. I hope that people who see it who are more gender conforming and/or cysgendered can see it and get a better understanding of the intimate, personal processes that trans and gender non-conforming people go through in their most private moments.”


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