The bold performance of young Zoé Héran is the centerpiece here in this gentle French film about a 10-year-old girl who pretends to be a boy.
Consider this a rental/Netflix recommendation.
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: B-
This prepubescent-coming-of-age film from French writer/director Céline Sciamma looks at gender/sexual identity through the eyes of Laure (Zoé Héran), who moves with her family into a new neighborhood and when she meets the local group of kids presents herself as a boy named Mikael. Though Sciamma never makes it clear exactly what prompts Laure to do this it is her somewhat androgynous appearance makes the ruse easy, but it's a delicate, complicated balance - certainly too much for 10-year-old to manage long term. A blossoming friendship with Lisa (Jeanne Disson) quickly becomes problematic on a few levels, as Lisa likes the boy she knows as Mikael - and Laure is attracted to Lisa - as the secret that divides them threatens to surface.
Sciamma presents Laure's gender switch without any of the usual stock machinations often found in lesser cinema, without any third reel flashback moment to slap us with an answer (as if there needs to be one). She has caring parents, an adorable 6-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), and other than the hurdles of moving into a new neighborhood Sciamma doesn't feel the need to provide a simplistic trigger. The thing is we don't need an answer - Laure does what she does for her own reasons and they're not ours to have "explained" - and whatever the reason it's left unsaid. Instead it is presented as what it is without expository rambling, and viewers are left to instead be part of Laure's world of lies and discovery.
Tomboy has some wonderfully unconventional scenes, such as Laure building her own fake penis out of modeling clay so that she can go swimming with the group or studying herself in the mirror to fine-tune Mikael's posture. But it is the moment where the house of cards falls down where Tomboy becomes rather emotionally cringe worthy, and the resolution is as parentally harsh as it is genuinely heartfelt. It is impossible to not identify with Laure and her desire to be accepted as the "new kid", which only makes the reveal of the truth so difficult to watch. Laure's a sweet child, trapped by her own compounding lies, yet Sciamma wisely doesn't give her film a "villain". While her mother (Sophie Cattani) is forced to address the issue we all know deep down that the Mikael/Laure double life cannot go on. But in a 10-year-old's eyes it is impossible to see that far into the future, and that makes those scenes so well played.
The film barely hits the 82-minute mark but even with the compact runtime there are plenty of natural, believable performances here - especially the trio of young actors (Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson) - that drive the heart of Tomboy.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is serviceable, with no measurable print issues, and the only time the colors carry any richness is during the outdoor sequences. Otherwise it's a fairly drab schema, with a transfer carries some modest macroblocking. Perhaps not quite as sweepingly bad as the previous two sentences might indicate, but just so-so.
Two audio options - both in the film's original French - are offered in 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. There's very little difference between the two, and for a small film such as Tomboy either mix presents clear voice quality. Burned-in English subs are provided, as well.
Disc supplements consist of a conversation with Céline Sciamma (17m:53s), with the director offering up her intent and approach on filmmaking as well as look at the casting of the young actors. Some of Sciamma's observations about her own work are a bit grandiose (referring to her own self-described "Hitchcockian dynamic") but it is apparent she had clear, defined vision for her film. The only other bonus content are some assorted trailers, including one for the feature.