Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tomboy... an experiment in indentity.

French director Céline Sciamma's second feature, "Tomboy" is, on the surface (as I've seen it described), a film about a 10-year old girl pretending to be a boy. Laure has just moved into a new neighborhood with her family (mom, dad and uber-femme 6-year old sis, Jeanne). Dad is mostly off at his new job, very pregnant mom is expecting a new baby boy soon and the kids have a few more weeks to summer before they start at their new school. The completely boy-ish looking Laure ventures out to meet a neighbor girl, the very mature-for-her-age, Lisa, who instantly takes Laure for a boy. On the spur of the moment, Laure tells Lisa her name is Mickaël, Mickaël quickly becomes the object of Lisa's affection and part of the local gang of kids and Tomboy is off and running. Needless to say, Mickaël is going to experience love, pain, self-realization, acceptance and intense rejection in the next 80 minutes.

Sisters (but maybe not)


Mickaël is initially somewhat tentative around the pack of rowdy boys with whom Lisa spends her time. She identifies him as "different than the others." But, in short order, lanky/flat Mickaël is knocking around with them, spitting, roughhousing, going shirtless while playing soccer and, in advance of a swimming outing, creates his own boy trunks and packer (in a classic of kid ingenuity). Girly-girl sister Jeanne finds out the secret and basically blackmails Mickaël into allowing her to play with the other kids. A kid-on-kid fight leads to the house of cards falling down and the last part of the film involves some minutes of intense, but wholly believable humiliation and pain. I could imagine Trans guys or butches seeing Tomboy could find the last scenes of the film profoundly painful.

Always observing, vigilant and guarded


The way Sciamma captures the cruelty, short sightedness and social world of childhood are some of the best scenes around this age group ever made. She does long unedited takes of the kids playing together, being caring, farting around, and trying to gross each other out, as each is trying to find their own place in the group. None of them is trying harder than Mickaël. He deals with situations like, the boys he just won over with his stellar soccer play, now is each taking a pee in the fields which leads to the first possible crack (no pun intended) in Mickaël's story. All the performances, especially by the kids, are outstanding. Zoe Heran (an actress and not a trans kid) as Laure/Mickaël is completely believable. With little sister, Heran shows both the love, utter selfishness and even cruelty kids have for their siblings. As a boy trying to fit in, Heran bestows a longing, competitiveness, toughness, bewilderment and fear the character cycles through. Perhaps the very best performance in the film is kiddie actor Malonn Lévana, who's amazingly subtle for a child this young, especially in some brilliant scenes where she pulls off huge feats of lying and braggadocio both for her own kid status and trying to protect her older sibling. Also impressive is Jeanne Disson as the aggressive tween, Lisa, who treats Mickaël as her pet summer love and attempts to control his every move until it all imploads on itself.

Lisa and her boytoy, Mickael

As director Sciamma has explained in interviews, French for a "tomboy" is "garçon manqué" (basically, a 'failed boy'**) and she thought the term was too insulting to the character so, instead, went with the English term. Upon seeing the film, I kept asking myself, is Mickaël a tomboy? That's one of the key questions the film poses (at least, for queer, genderqueer or trans viewers). Not too surprisingly, Sciamma leaves the gender identity of her central character rather ambiguous or, at least, 'in development.' In a French interview, she describes the film as "a child's first real life experiment with gender." As an experiment, she seems to be saying Mickaël might go many different directions from this experience. But to be accurate, the character first presents themselves as very masculine identified by the first scene, both in terms of presentation and behavior. Even when as Laure, they never identify themselves as a girl.


Up until the film's final minute, I was dead convinced this was a film about a trans boy on pretty much every level. He is obsessed with his body (and to some extent, presenting with a penis). Yes, tomboys are masculine presenting (and, granted, working through a lot of issues in terms of where their identity might fall) but, on some level, a tomboy is still girl-ID'd. Mickaël seems several steps beyond that. His 'experiment' is his first real chance to see how far he can get as a male. But, in the film's final minute, after the secret has been revealed and resulted in great humiliation and a seeming break between Lisa and any hope of summer love and belonging, it gets set on its ear. Lisa asks Mickaël what his name is (meaning his birth name). He says Laure, and the two smile at one another, perhaps promising a furthering of the relationship or, at the very least, a re-blossoming of friendship.


I can see viewers with different gender identities having hugely differing feelings about the ending. As a trans person, my immediate reaction was it wasn't quite real and a bit of an imposed "cheat" by a cis lesbian-ID'd director who didn't want to make a film specifically about a trans boy. That a trans boy wouldn't just be cool relabeling himself as a girl (although I'm sure it's happened to many transmasculine kids as they go through cycles of attempting to transition). But in fairness, to someone who's butch or genderqueer (masculine but very much not male ID'd) the ending would make perfect sense and have just the right touch of hopefulness, ambiguity, and a young exploration of living between the binaries. For most 10-year olds, it's not an either/or situation (even if it is for many trans kids) and no matter what the identity is, it might be be years before the parents will even permit them to go in any direction away from the mainstream. Mostly, I left the film with a profound sadness thinking about what the main character will go through when puberty starts next year. Not that it's a carefree summer by a long shot but, basically, it's all going to go downhill from here.

Director Sciamma

Those who love films about children, young people who can actually deign to see a foreign language film, and people from all over the queer/trans spectrum should run out and see Tomboy. For those in the last group, I suspect there will be many who have had similar experiences and feelings to those shown in the film (albeit on a less grandiose scale of summer fail). Sciamma has said it's become a hit family film in France (where they aren't freaked out by the brief, totally non-sexualized shots of kid nudity) and I think Tomboy could prove a wonderful educational tool/conversation starter for tweens and teens. See it, see how you react to the questions of identity it poses (or avoids?) and fall in love with its totally empathic link to the world of childhood pain and longing.

**The French have some incredibly blunt terms for social phenomena. I recall recoiling the first time I was told that the holiday "Passover" was known in French as Paques Juives (basically 'Jew Easter"!)


  1. (WARNING: spoilers?)

    Curiously enough I *just* saw this film this weekend. And I echo your sentiments exactly. Both my spouse and I felt that the movie left us completely deflated by the utterance of the very last word. I kind of wanted to yell "NO! Rewind! It can't be!" It would've been an entirely different movie had this word been switched.

    It seems the current ending (as you point out) emphasizes a possibly fluid identity, lending it a more butch/tomboy slant rather than a trans one. But given that the rest of the movie brings home the portrayal of a "trans boy" I felt this was a major betrayal on the part of the director.

    1. I thought the ending was vary appropriate. Mickael had lied to Lisa, Lisa had stood up for him, and he felt he should tell her the truth. The way Mickael told Lisa his/her name, his tone and facial expression showed the conflict between his identity and birth name/gender. I feel the movie portrayed a child questioning his/her social (possibly gender) identity. Besides Lisa and Mickael where in a complicated (age appropriate)relationship. I think they where friends, that had a crush on each other. Lisa sees (saw) him as a boy, Mickael feels like a boy, and they had feelings for each other. The last word in the movie is fitting, it resolves the plot. The rising action of the film started with unintentional one-word "lie" to Lisa and was resolved by telling her his female birth name name. In the movie's conclusion Lisa still sees him as a boy (tomboy or transgendered, and Mickael is forced to face the fact that he is biological female. (which doesn't mean he now sees himself as a girl.) I don't think his journey of self discovery has finished, but rather just beginning. For everyone that liked this movie, can I suggest a similar 1997 French film Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink). It is similar but with the opposite twist.

    2. I have to disagree. The last word sets the mood that Mickael got what he "deserved" for "lying". I was nauseated with how his mother treated him; she completely ridiculed him and also took away Mickael's own right to determine who he is. The other children continue with a same note (they get a small pass for being kids as kids are really cruel), and the film makes us believe that this is okay. At no point, does the film make us feel that the other people around Mickael are wrong, and shouldn't abuse him like that. Even his dad kinda tells him to forget this silliness, 'cos it's all going to be alright, since everything will go back to NORMAL.

      I cannot see how this is an uplifting film? Only parts that are uplifting are when Mickael is with his little sister. Othervice it was painful to watch. It's horrible to see someone denied their identity (whether it's gender, hobby etc.), really crushing.

      Also, even if Mickael had just been a girl playing around (which he clearly wasn't, you can tell by his reactions) how everyone treated him was still horrible and plain wrong. The film doesn't pass on that feeling, it just brushes away all of the main characters pain, like it never happened, and we're supposed to move on.

      In conclusion, I think the film is well made, the actors and actresses are all great, but the message is lost in good intentions but bad execution. If the director wanted to make a lesbian film, she should've done a lesbian film, and not another seemingly trans-film which has the message "you can struggle all you want; we as a society won't accept you as you are, but as we want you to be" which I think is a crappy message to send to anyone.

  2. @Maddox: Yup, I've been thinking about the film some more the past few days and, in retrospect, feel even stronger about that point. That said, it's still an excellent film and I hope no one would take a pass on it because of that. :)

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  4. I want to echo your complaint about the ending strengthen it-- after a beautiful movie, i found the ending totally traumatizing and transphobic. Whether or not the main character goes on to identify as male or female, gender fluid, etc, later in life, this film does not even suggest the existence of these options. In the scene where the mother is outing Mikael/Laure to neighbors, she vocalizes this, saying "I don't see any other option. Do you?" Mikael/Laure doesn't, and neither, it appears, does the director. The message I received was, "lie about your gender and you will be punished." Ick. And, get it together, France! Ma Vie En Rose came out like 15 years ago. No excuse.

  5. @Tiger: I can certainly see people of varying IDs and experiences reacting to the ending differently. I'm sure many non-trans people would find it "hopeful, cute & optimistic." I shared your experience, especially because the rest of the film, up to that last few seconds, seems waaay more about a trans boy than a tomboy. And if the director doesn't think Mikael is trans (in a recent interview in Original Plumbing she said she's not saying), then I think she's appropriating a lot of trans experience to pad out her film.

  6. Thanks for this - I've linked to it on my blog.

    Right up until the last minute, I was sure the film was about a trans boy not a butch babydyke. Even knowing in advance that the director wouldn't answer definitely, even with the answer in the last few seconds, I thought that just left it open, not confirmed either way. Mikael presents as a boy throughout - and I got from what the mother said that he's done it before, though not so successfully or thoroughly.

  7. I just got back from seeing the movie, and OH MY GOD the mother was a horrible character. I was never as mad at a character than her. She was just a horrible transphobic witch. It's the few moments where I regret watching a movie.

  8. After just watching this movie as I am trans and thought it would be realistic, i wasn't wrong, at least from my point of view. Mikael passes as a boy, they all believe him, but he is ashamed of being who he really is at home. His sister seems very accepting of who he is inside, his father seems distraught but not as bad as his mother. His mother might as well have burned him alive in public because thats what it seems to have felt like for Mikael. As far as the ending, it made me cry to see the pain in his eyes once he was forced to be Laure at all times. The fild was very well made and the actors were great, but the plot was poorly constucted as there was no real solution to the problem.

  9. I though that leaving the dress hanging on the tree said it all, and it is a strong cue to the uttering of her name -which is an ambiguous name for Laura anyway.


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